We all have read articles about the connection between cellphones and children’s mental health. Not surprisingly, many people express strong negative emotions towards social media and cellphones.
These articles and conversations can leave us feeling disheartened and discouraged. How can we raise our children in a world where cellphones are an integral and seemingly indispensable part of society?
We often focus on whether or not cellphones and social media are to blame for the increasing mental health issues we’re seeing among youth. Perhaps this focus is misdirected. Upon deeper inspection, causation isn’t as black and white as it seems.
Imagine a marathon runner who hits mile eight and can’t continue for no apparent reason. Why is this? Is it biological? Are they just not biologically programmed to run a marathon? Is it psychological? Could they have made it across the line if they had the self-discipline to push through? Or maybe environmental? Maybe if there were better roads or paths to train on they could have made it?
Which is the right answer? It’s very difficult to pin down just one culprit. The truth is likely a combination of many factors. The same goes for a struggling child. Anxiety and depression are multi-factorial and individualistic. There are numerous combinations of factors that could be contributing to depression or anxiety. In some cases, it can be more harmful than helpful to assume one underlying cause for all children.
Child psychiatrist Matt Swenson says, “The research is not definitive yet about whether cellphones are universally and unilaterally a problem in kids’ lives. You should be skeptical of someone who tells you otherwise. ... But, at the end of the day, even if there is causation, even if we knew (cellphones were bad), I would question whether it would be helpful because of its societal influence.”
Because cellphones are such an integral part of society, especially to our children, it is impractical to expect them to never be exposed to cellphones and social media. Whether phones are good or bad is not helpful. Most likely, we won’t know the cause of anxiety and depression. So, what can we do? We can switch our focus to what we do know. We know what our children need to feel safe, connected and confident.
When does a cellphone undermine basic human needs to feel safe, connected and confident? Undoubtedly, there are times when cellphones can threaten a child’s safety, connection and confidence. It may be because of cyberbullying. It could be a loss of connection to you because they are distracted. If this happens, it may be viable to temporarily take the phone away. However, if our intentions are to use taking away their cellphone to try to motivate them or make them more successful, it likely is going to be short-lived.
Instead, let’s think about when cellphones help meet basic human needs to feel safe, connected and confident. Kids can feel safety if they can call home at any time. They can feel connected to their friends and family. In fact, cellphones and social media are a significant part of maintaining relationships today. Cellphones increasingly play an integral role in a child feeling safe, connected and confident.
The topic of cellphones is complicated, and again, multi-factorial. We must be careful not to oversimplify a very complex issue. Thus, rather than concentrating on uncertainties, we can focus on how we can better make our child feel safe, connected and confident every day.