By Yvonne Sam
Social and Political Commentator
Unlike their parents, whose concerns may lie somewhere between teething and potty training, my biggest concern, strangely enough, was how to keep cellphones out of their hands for at least the next 15 years. Yes, go ahead and exhale now.
Today kids and teenagers, alike, face an epidemic, without a cure: screen-time and all its accompanying dysfunction, mental health problems and bad habits. The head-in-the-phone attitude is more than mere irritation. Sad, but true, this behavior, seemingly harmless in itself, can nevertheless determine whether or not a young person lives or dies.
I recall, with pained nostalgia, the school holidays before cellphones. The days were fun and spontaneous. A morning playing in the neighbor’s kids backyard might turn into a cook-out, or a picnic of sorts (without parents), and extend until the sun went down, and as kids we bade each other tired goodbyes.
If we ever left the neighborhood, it was with confirmed parental permission, and explicit details as to our destination, and critical thinking as to how we would communicate with home, if necessary.
Are such childhood experiences still in existence? Is it naïve nostalgia, at best, to wish them for my neighbor’s kids? Summer is over, but at the height of summer this year, I hardly saw any children playing outside in their backyards in my family-filled neighbourhood. Where were all the kids? Looking at their phones, Tablets, I-Pads, video games or whatever? Inside?
Data analyzed by Jean Twenge, a psychologist, who is an expert on generational differences, reveals that the number of teenagers, who get together with their friends every day, dropped by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2015.
The psychologist traced severe behavioral changes in those born between 1995 and 2012, referred to as iGens, to the popularity of the smartphone, arguing that the “twin rise” of those devices and social media is transforming a generation, the likes of which has never been seen before. And in terrible ways. www.scientificamerican.com/article/social-notworking-is-generation-smartphone-really-more-prone-to-unhappiness/
In the U.S.A, data from the National Center for Health Statistics, showed the suicide rate among teenage girls as reaching a 40-year high in 2015, with the rate for girls doubling just between 2007 and 2015. For teenage boys, there was a 31 percent increase. “Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011″. www.cnn.com/2017/08/03/health/teen-suicide-cdc-study-bn/index.html. According to Twenge, “It’s not an exaggeration to describe the iGen (cohort) as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades”. However, it does not appear like anyone, namely the parents of teens and soon-to-be teens, is listening.
The logical conclusion of the kind of introverted narcissism sustained by social media and individualized, isolated screen-time is depression and suicide. Adults are able and capable of separating the picture-perfect façade of Instagram (I know kids use Snapchat) from the real life behind its photos.
However, such a task becomes much harder for a teen, much less a child, whose entire reality may have been formed by what he or she sees online. When that feedback turns negative, as it so often does on the anonymous Internet, then it is no surprise that their worlds come crashing down.
I have yet to encounter millennials, who say they wish that social media had been available when we were in secondary school. It is a frightening thought — yet one we are imposing on our kids every day.
The blasé attitude, shown by parents toward their kids’ screen usage, can be witnessed at any restaurant. Where families once talked to each other over a meal, everyone from 3-year-olds to 16-year-olds now sit buried with their nose in their phones.
While screens are a great babysitter, they can be likened to placing heroin in the hands of kids and walking away. Addiction is almost instantaneous, and withdrawal too annoying or cumbersome to ever deal with.
Millennials like to lay the blame for their generational problems at the feet of the baby boomers, who, arguably, encouraged their entitlement, and, along with Gen Xers have allowed screen-time to take over. However, we are bound to make the same mistakes with “iGen”, if we do not, starting from now, adjust how we let our kids spend their time.
As adults, we must not overlook the fact that each generation do not just helicopter into existence with their own innate characteristics, but instead are influenced by, and react to, the generations that have come before.
Research has shown that even 1-year-old kids learn from observing the actions of adults around them. What are the kids observing today?
Yvonne Sam, a retired Head Nurse and Secondary School Teacher, is Vice-president of the Guyana Cultural Association of Montreal. A regular columnist for over two decades with the Montreal Community Contact, her insightful and incursive articles on topics ranging from politics, human rights and immigration, to education and parenting have also appeared in the Huffington Post, Montreal Gazette, XPressbogg and Guyanese OnLine. She is also the recipient of the Governor General of Canada Caring Canadian Citizen Award.