Dr. Sanjay Gupta: Parenting in the era of ubiquitous screens and social media

A growing number of states are turning the screws on Big Tech, the internet and social media. On Wednesday, Montana became the first state to completely ban TikTok, although many are skeptical that the controversial new legislation will be enforceable.

Other moves include laws that aim to tighten regulations on social media platforms in general, like those recently enacted by Arkansas and Utah.

There are three worthwhile goals that appear to be at least part of the motivation behind legal maneuvers like these: preventing companies from collecting data on us and our children, protecting kids online and balancing your rights with your responsibilities when you post content to online platforms. For example, if a platform hosts content that leads to someone being harmed, can it then also held responsible? So far, the answer has been no, according to a recent US Supreme Court decision.

For me, though, the discussions around smartphones and social media are very personal. As a dad of three teenage girls, I am often left wondering about the impact of so much screen time on their brains.

Like many parents, I thought of devices for my kids as glorified toys that could entertain them if needed and provide a valuable communication tool in case of an emergency. That changed after I read a book by Jean Twenge called “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood – and What That Means for the Rest of Us.”

In her book, Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, makes the case that Gen Z (or iGen, as she calls them) is growing up in a way that is fundamentally different from previous generations. She told me that some of the biggest behavioral changes ever recorded in human history coincided with the release of the smartphone.

Twelfth-graders now are more like eighth-graders from previous generations, waiting longer to take part in activities associated with independence and adulthood, according to Twenge. They are less likely to go out with friends, drive, go to prom or drink alcohol than Gen X 12th-graders were. They are more likely to lie on their beds and scroll through endless social media feeds. They may be physically safer, but the long-term effect on their mental and brain health is a big question mark.

Twenge told me that she “saw just a very, very sudden change, especially in mental health but also in optimism and expectations … between millennials and iGen or Gen Z.”

What she said made sense but also frightened me. On many topics – for example, neurosurgery – I have a pretty good idea of how to address concerns because I rely on evidence, sometimes collected over decades. But with regard to these new technologies, there was hardly any data to review. Not only did we lack answers to basic questions, we often didn’t even know what questions to be asking in the first place.

As a result, my wife, Rebecca, and I found ourselves in a very unusual – and uncomfortable – situation. Based on very little information, we had to provide critical guidance about what age, how much and what kind of screen time to allow our three iGen daughters.

I know I am not alone. I hear these kinds of concerns all time, from the parents of my kids’ friends as well as from viewers, readers and listeners, which is why my podcast, “Chasing Life,” devoted an entire season to the topic.

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