It’s back-to-school time. In my town, the first day was last Thursday. In New York City, classes start this week. If you’re a parent, you know what it means—the return of long faces and high anxiety about homework, due dates, and report cards.
Navigating the choppy seas of childhood has never been easy. These days, however, there is a new shark in the water: social media. Keeping up with the latest gadgets, apps, and social networks is now just as urgent as staying current with the latest fashions, hairstyles, and sneaker brands. It’s become all-consuming. Last month, a prominent addiction specialist caused a stir when he compared screen time for kids with “digital heroin.”
“We now know that those iPads, smartphones and Xboxes are a form of digital drug,” wrote Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, executive director of The Dunes East Hampton, a high-end residential-rehabilitation facility on Long Island. “Recent brain imaging research is showing that they affect the brain’s frontal cortex—which controls executive functioning, including impulse control—in exactly the same way that cocaine does.” A 2010 study of University of Maryland students found that giving up their devices for 24 hours produced cravings identical to those experienced by drug addicts going through withdrawal.
Researchers have linked social-media use with a host of typical teenage woes, including low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. The pressure of responding to texts and instant messages causes sleeplessness in teens. It’s hard to ace an exam when you’ve been up all night staring at a screen, wondering why your friends aren’t writing you back.
Moms and dads are often just as hooked on their handhelds. How can we force our kids to disconnect without seeming like hypocrites? Here’s how it works at my house. My 12-year-old daughter has a smart phone—she inherited it when I switched service providers—but it’s not connected to e-mail or social media. She uses it only for listening to music, taking pictures of her baby brother, and checking the weather. She doesn’t even know what Instagram is. I doubt there are many seventh-graders who can say the same.
My wife and I use a variety of strategies to keep our children in the digital dark. For starters: we homeschool. We have our reasons—unrelated to our concerns about social media—but homeschooling relieves much of the stress that kids suffer trying to keep up with the likes, shares, and faves of their friends. “People feel that when they get a lot of likes it means that they’re pretty and popular, and that makes them feel better,” one 15-year-old told CNN. Parents of public school students have told me that the pressure to look good on social media—especially for girls—is brutal. Is there anyone who thinks that this is good for kids? I’d rather eat nails than put my daughter through it.
Homeschooling isn’t for everyone. But you don’t have to pull your children out of school to give them—and yourself—some peace of mind. Shielding children from social-media anxiety and digital depression starts with just saying “no” to Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and the rest. My daughter knows what some of these services are, but she’s not allowed to use them, and it will be years before that changes. Some of her friends have accounts—yes, homeschooled kids have friends—but my wife and I see no conceivable upside to throwing her to the lions of the online jungle.
No American kid can expect to linger forever in the bliss of Internet ignorance. But as a parent, if I can delay the day of reckoning, why wouldn’t I do it? It’s not as if she’s going to have trouble catching up. This is Facebook we’re talking about, not physics. There’s one surefire way to avoid the new disease of digital depression as your kids head back to school: log them out.
Photo by Wavebreakmedia/iStock