The problem with social media and kids is also spiritual

For every parent who has wanted to rip the phone from their kid's hands — you are not wrong.

FILE - Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy speaks during an event on the White House complex in Washington, April 23, 2024. Murthy is asking Congress to require warning labels on social media platforms that are similar to those that appear on cigarette boxes. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

(RNS) — Want to find that one issue upon which at least some Democrats and Republicans can agree?

Here it is: the danger that social media poses to our young people.

In the words of United States Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy:

The mental health crisis among young people is an emergency — and social media has emerged as an important contributor. Adolescents who spend more than three hours a day on social media face double the risk of anxiety and depression symptoms, and the average daily use in this age group, as of the summer of 2023, was 4.8 hours. Additionally, nearly half of adolescents say social media makes them feel worse about their bodies.

It is time to require a surgeon general’s warning label on social media platforms, stating that social media is associated with significant mental health harms for adolescents. A surgeon general’s warning label, which requires congressional action, would regularly remind parents and adolescents that social media has not been proved safe. Evidence from tobacco studies show that warning labels can increase awareness and change behavior. When asked if a warning from the surgeon general would prompt them to limit or monitor their children’s social media use, 76 percent of people in one recent survey of Latino parents said yes. 

The rest of society can play a role also. Schools should ensure that classroom learning and social time are phone-free experiences. Parents, too, should create phone-free zones around bedtime, meals and social gatherings to safeguard their kids’ sleep and real-life connections — both of which have direct effects on mental health. And they should wait until after middle school to allow their kids access to social media. 

As a father of a 6- and a 7-year-old who have already asked about social media, I worry about how my wife and I will know when to let them have accounts. How will we monitor their activity, given the increasingly sophisticated techniques for concealing it?…

It doesn’t have to be this way. Faced with high levels of car-accident-related deaths in the mid- to late 20th century, lawmakers successfully demanded seatbelts, airbags, crash testing and a host of other measures that ultimately made cars safer…

The surgeon general’s warnings echo what Jonathan Haidt described in his book “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness.”

These warnings have resonated. This past week, California Governor Gavin Newsom called for a statewide ban on smartphone use in California schools, which is part of a national effort to curb cyberbullying and classroom distraction by limiting access to the devices.

Do not accuse Surgeon General Murthy, Haidt and Governor Newsom of being Luddites, of being anti-technology.

Rather, commend them for noting the public health challenges to our children.

Commend them for their courage as culture warriors, showing a willingness to push back against our society’s worship of technology — to the point of addictive behavior. Many of us know that addiction, up front and personal.

In my recent book on the future of liberal Judaism in America, I quoted David Zvi Kalman:

In 2010, the University of Maryland conducted a study of almost a thousand participants to measure the psychological effects of abstaining from all electronic communication devices for twenty-four hours. The results were discouraging: many participants experienced withdrawal-like symptoms, including anxiety, cravings, and general misery. The majority were unable to complete the study.

Likewise, there are spiritual health implications. If you are Jewish, attend worship services on Yom Kippur and notice how many sins we confess are sins of language: for the sin of tale bearing and gossip and lying and deceptive speech, etc. They are all found in that little piece of hardware in our hands.

As has been said over the centuries: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” In the cyber world, it takes a nano second. And it is there forever.

Which reminds me of one of the finest works of Jewish literature that I have read lately. 

The book is “The Hebrew Teacher,” written by Maya Arad and translated by Jessica Cohen. It is a trilogy of novellas that focus on the lives of Israelis living in Silicon Valley. 

The last novella, “Make New Friends,” ripped me apart.

Libby, an adolescent girl, is not popular. She discusses the social psychology of mean girls with her mother, Efrat: “The ones who are nice aren’t popular … The more popular you are, the more not-nice you are.”

Some of the popular girls pay attention to Libby, but their friendship is inconsistent, and they often exclude her. What is Libby’s problem? She doesn’t have a smart phone. Roni, Efrat’s friend, admonishes her:

You’re really doing her an injustice. It’s no wonder she’s struggling socially. Everything happens on phones these days. How can you even expect her to be in touch with someone if…”

But if I give her a phone she’ll never get off it!”

Roni laughs. “Efrat, what planet are you living on? That ship sailed long ago. This is our world. You want a kid without a smartphone? Join an ultra-Orthodox sect.

Libby needs a phone, and she needs to be on social media. In one of the most devastating passages of any book that I’ve read recently, Efrat discovers that her daughter’s friends have been mercilessly tormenting her in that cyber-jungle. It is the kind of torment that has driven some young people to self-harm and even suicide.

Efrat hacks into her daughter’s account:

She has to go in. To protect her little girl. These are the truly dangerous places. Who cares about some pervert from Australia or North Dakota? It’s much scarier right here, close to home, in her own school.

Efrat retaliates, and fights back.

There are many treasures in this book, and it is well worth your time.

But, I am part of the problem. We all are. I will post this column and link to it on Facebook and hope that many people read it, and heed it, and that it will go viral.

Metaphor check: “viral.” As in a plague.

For me, as for most of you, the answer will not lie in an utter rejection of our devices nor of the internet nor of social media. We might more easily imagine a world without water or air.

But, at the very least, a religious temperament might mean questioning our utter reliance on such technology: creating islands of time, like the Sabbath or Sunday, when we would liberate ourselves from technology and being more self-aware of how we use our tools, which have become our toys.

And, for the sake of our young people: They, like all of us, are made in the Divine Image. Which means they deserve utmost care, concern and dignity.

That rabbinic statement that has become a cliche: “Whoever saves one life, it is as if they have saved the entire world.”

If regulating access to social media will save the life of one kid, it will be worth it.

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