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Just How Harmful is Social Media to Childhood?

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

Just How Harmful is Social Media to Childhood?

By Movieguide® Contributor

NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt believes the damage social media wreaks on children’s mental health is undeniable; he is now pushing to hold companies accountable for the damage they have done.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” Haidt told PEOPLE. “There’s massive evidence of harm. It happened in many countries at the same time, at a specific point in time: the moment when teens traded their flip phones for smartphones. It’s as if you had a murder, and all eyewitnesses point to this suspect. There is no other explanation.”

According to Haidt, rates of anxiety and depression skyrocketed among youth worldwide around 2012, five years after the iPhone was released and two years after Instagram debuted. He believes the link between these occurrences is not incidental, and lawmakers have allowed social media companies to get away with something inexcusable.

“Imagine there was suddenly a toy introduced which would cause children to get less sleep, less exercise, spend less time with other children. It would make them incredibly self-conscious, and it would lower their self-esteem and cause depression and anxiety. That would be horrible, right?” he said. “We’ve seen the loss of the play-based childhood, which kids have always had, in favor of a phone-based childhood.”

“If Congress said, ‘You have to be 21 to drink, but we’re going to give immunity to the alcohol industry—it’s the parents’ job to keep their children out of bars,’ that’s the situation we’re in with social media. It’s absurd,” he added. “Parents can’t possibly do that.”

“The most important thing the government can do is raise the age for social media use to 16,” Haidt continued. “Right now, the law says 13, and there’s no enforcement. Once kids are on, there’s no way to make it safe. Social media is brutal for children. It’s crucial to require social media companies to age verify.”

While the response has been slow, multiple state governments are currently working towards this reality. Last month, Florida passed a law banning children under 13 from using social media and requiring parental consent from 14- and 15-year-olds to make an account. Ohio and Arkansas have pushed for similar laws but have had them shot down in court.

The lawmakers’ response may point to a grim future, but many people who grew up with social media understand its negative impact and desire change. Haidt runs a class at NYU where he helps students break their unhealthy habits with their phones and “regain control of their attention.”

“Once they understand what [social media] is doing to them and that they need to guard their attention like it’s their most precious resource, they get amazing results,” Haidt explained. “They lower their screen time. They find that they can do their homework. They’re not interrupted constantly.”

“So some simple lifestyle changes can bring about huge benefits, especially if they do it together, that’s the key thing. And there’s nobody out there in Gen Z saying, ‘We need our social media, don’t take it away from us.’ They’re saying, ‘I wish we lived in a world with no social media,’” he continued.

“A real strength of Gen Z is that they’re not in denial, they’re not defensive,” he added. “They see what this is doing to them. If we can help them find a way out of this trap, they’re going to take it.”

Haidt recently released  “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness,” where he explores the harm created by smartphones in detail.

“The Anxious Generation offers the most comprehensive review available of the evidence on what happened to Gen Z (those born after 1995) and why. The story is not just about social media causing depression in teen girls. It’s a much bigger story about what childhood is and what children and adolescents need to do in the real world to become capable, confident, happy adults,” he described on Instagram.

Movieguide® previously reported:

As laws regulating minors’ access to social media begin to pop up around the country, a Pew study reveals that most Americans – particularly adults – support this type of legislation.

The study, conducted over September and October 2023, asked American adults and teens whether they would support certain regulations on social media, such as requiring parental consent, age verification and time limits.

Adults were very supportive of these regulations, with the most support behind parental consent (81%), followed by age verification (71%) and time limits (69%). These regulations saw very little pushback, and each question saw only one in 10 U.S. adults saying they would oppose legislation for each issue.

Teens were less supportive of these measures. However, they showed that, in general, they had some interest in regulating access to social media for them and their peers. Forty-six percent of teens supported mandatory parental regulation to create a social media account, compared to 25% who opposed this idea.

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Our small team works tirelessly to provide resources to protect families from harmful media, reviewing 415 movies/shows and writing 3,626 uplifting articles this year. We believe that the gospel can transform entertainment. That’s why we emphasize positive and faith-filled articles and entertainment news, and release hundreds of Christian movie reviews to the public, for free. No paywalls, just trusted, biblically sound content to bless you and your family. Online, Movieguide is the closest thing to a biblical entertainment expert at your fingertips. As a reader-funded operation, we welcome any and all contributions – so if you can, please give something. It won’t take more than 52 seconds (we timed it for you). Thank you.

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4000+ Faith Based Articles and Movie Reviews – Will you Support Us?

Our small team works tirelessly to provide resources to protect families from harmful media, reviewing 415 movies/shows and writing 3,626 uplifting articles this year. We believe that the gospel can transform entertainment. That’s why we emphasize positive and faith-filled articles and entertainment news, and release hundreds of Christian movie reviews to the public, for free. No paywalls, just trusted, biblically sound content to bless you and your family. Online, Movieguide is the closest thing to a biblical entertainment expert at your fingertips. As a reader-funded operation, we welcome any and all contributions – so if you can, please give something. It won’t take more than 52 seconds (we timed it for you). Thank you.