Smartphone Technology Causing Mental Health Crisis; Parents Urged to Place Limits

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A mental health crisis is upon American young people in light of such high technology usage, a prominent psychology publication reports. Yet this can be avoided if families make intentional breaks with smart phone technology and social media and deliberately celebrate life together, says a parenting expert.

Surveys show that approximately half of teenagers, the generation known as iGen or Generation Z, are addicted to their cell phones, a July 23 article in Psychology Today explains.

The article's author, Glenn Geher, conducted a study recently with one of his students in which he surveyed 200 students. An astonishing 59 percent of them reported having at some point been diagnosed with a psychological disorder, he said. Geher is the chair of the psychology department at SUNY-New Paltz and noted that their campus counseling centers are, like many across the nation, "absolutely saturated all the time."

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And he believes technology is partly to blame considering: the kind of communication that takes place on it is often mean-spirited and hurtful, cell phones are indeed addicting, and technology takes kids away from outdoor activities, all of which compound the problem.

"A standard finding in the social psychological literature is that people act in a relatively anti-social manner when their identities are covered up — when they are acting anonymously," Geher said, adding how easy that is to do on the internet.

Danny Huerta, a licensed clinical social worker and vice president of parenting and youth at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, Colorado, told CP that social media and technology trigger the reward circuitry in the brain. And he urged parents to model the kinds of healthy technology use habits that they want their kids to emulate.

Danny Huerta, Vice President of Parenting and Youth at Focus on the Family.
Danny Huerta, Vice President of Parenting and Youth at Focus on the Family. | (Photo: Courtesy of Focus on the Family)

With such frequent use of technology, "we're seeking authenticity and our brain does not register online things as authentic, and there are a lot of comparisons that take place" within the human psyche, Huerta said. He added that such constant mental comparisons "create a sense of depression, anxiety, stress."

Girls are more likely to become addicted to social media utilities like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, whereas boys are more likely to get hooked on online gaming, often because of the sense of power that comes from it, he went on to explain.

But all these things are unfulfilling substitutes for human relationships. The power, identity, and even friendships — which can be lost with a single click — that social media and technology provide distorts our perception of reality and contributes to the rising rates of mental health breakdown.

"People are posting their highlights, their best of the best, their funniest things, the things that are top-notch. The brain has a hard time processing that because our lives are not all highlights. There's a lot of mundane-ness, and that's ok," Huerta said.

"And we have a hard time with that because we feel that we are supposed to be [positive all the time]."

Coupled with the pace of life and the lack of sleep, the way people often eat when they are on technology all the time, it is no surprise to see mental health breakdown occurring on a larger scale, he added.

Huerta believes parents must find a balance and put limits on children's use of technology, telling CP that in his own home his kids know that it is a "privilege" and not "a right" to use either his or his wife's phone.

"The more they rely on the online world, the more they are going to find the rest of the world to be a bit boring," he said, stressing that this is especially important given how rapidly technology changes.

"The fact that virtual reality and augmented reality is around the corner, and Apple and Google, and everybody is working on that because that is the next money maker, we have to be parents, I believe, to create kids that can think and understand why there are boundaries."

He recommends that families anchor themselves in what phones also steal: connection and unity, and that families do weekly celebrations.

"If a home can be focused on unity rather than pleasure it really gives a sense of accomplishment when you can continually do that."

When families look for something to celebrate, even if there is nothing specific to celebrate, and if nothing else, that they did life together and they are united.

His words comport with established science and scholarship that has chronicled the corrosive effect of technology on relationships.

British author Sue Palmer explains in the 2016 update of her 2006 book Toxic Childhood: How the Modern World is Damaging Our Children and What We Can Do About It that at the beginning of the 21st century many books were written about human happiness, all of which confirmed what extensive scientific research has shown: that happiness comes not from having more money but from successful personal relationships with friends and family and in the local community.

"This finding is, or course, at odds with the interests of global corporations. To increase their wealth and power, they need us to believe that the true route to happiness is through shopping. Hence the concerted drive of marketeers, aided by the image of the 'perfect' lifestyle beamed through these ubiquitous screens, to make us judge each other's worth in terms of appearance, possessions, and other indicators of material wealth."

"By splintering us off from our communities and families, luring every man, woman and child into personalized virtual realities where advertisers can exploit their particular psychological vulnerabilities, the market creates conditions to sell more stuff."

Follow Brandon Showalter on Facebook: BrandonMarkShowalter

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