Last week, my six- and three-year-olds kept singing some irritating song with a repeated “diggity-dog” and butt wiggle in it. Was that from school? I asked. Oh no, from something on the iPad. Somehow, they’d navigated there from another app I’d approved. And I, of course, had no idea, because my head was under two pillows, a small puddle of drool accumulating on the sheet as I willed myself back to sleep for just another 20 minutes.
“Do you know dolphins sleep with half their brain awake?” my first-grader told me, recently, after a trip to the museum.
If only I were a dolphin.
Thankfully, help is on the way. Last month, the US Department of Health and Human Services granted $10m to the American Academy of Pediatrics to establish a National Center of Excellence on Social Media and Mental Wellness. It is part of the Biden administration’s strategy to address an alarming national mental health crisis and has a mandate, according to the press release, to “develop and disseminate information, guidance, and training on the impact – including risk and benefits – that social media use has on children and young people, especially the risks to their mental health”.
We adults, responding to soaring inflation and the collective trauma of years of Covid, have been driven to a breaking point. So, too, have our children, with over 40% of teenagers saying, heartbreakingly, that they have persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. In 2021, in the midst of a roiling pandemic, the US surgeon general’s office issued a 53-page advisory calling out tech platforms as being particularly culpable when it came to our children’s weakening mental health, in effect replacing one public health crisis with another.
I understood, drawing from my tween days in AOL chatrooms, how social media would become more and more enticing to my children as they approached adolescence. Everyone’s sharing photos, everyone’s on a group chat, let me join in. But just what constituted social media use for my first-grader, who does not yet have a phone, and how slippery was the slope of “let’s screw around on YouTube” to persistent feelings of hopelessness and despair?
“Every child is going to have some ways media supports them, and some ways it undermines them,” Dr Jenny Radesky told me. “If you are a four-year-old who loves music and your parent can show you the music videos of their favorite They Might Be Giants video, when MTV was really big, sure that’s an added benefit of entering your parents’ world and dancing together. But that’s not a kid performing on YouTube, or reading someone else’s comments about them.”
Radesky is the co-director of the new center, where she will focus on the littlest among us. (Her co-director, Megan Moreno, an adolescent expert, will handle the older crowd.) Radesky has been a pediatrician for over a decade, is the lead author of the 2016 American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement on digital media usage in early childhood, and conducts research with very young children, including those who can’t yet tie their shoes, let alone post a video on TikTok.
She became a rabbi, of sorts, when I was researching my book about technology and parenting, helping me understand tech’s effects on my then-infant, toddler, and preschooler with compassion and a clear-eyed sense of what it means to be a parent in the Digital Age, hurtling from one task to the next, and doing your best. Sure, it would be wonderful if we could all run around free in a Scandinavian forest, picking berries and building forts out of lingonberry branches while our devices sat, unloved, in a rough-hewn wooden chest in the attic. But what about the rest of us?
As Radesky sees it, “social media” is a bit of an archaic term. It used to mean connecting with old college buddies online. Now it’s more “large distributed platforms”, where users can self-publish and self-distribute their own content. Something like YouTube or Facebook certainly falls under this umbrella, but so too does Roblox, an online gaming platform that allows players to create and play games created by others. None of these is what is known in the field as “a walled garden” or a “closed system”, where everything has been approved or created by one company.
Depending on the platform, comments and interactions might not be vetted by an actual human at any stage in the process. That’s an issue because, driven by the metric of “eyes on screen” and up-voting, creators often slide into posting the most extreme, outrageous content they can – hyper-violent, hyper-sexualized – and kids younger and younger are engaging with it.
In October of last year, CS Mott Children’s hospital issued a report called “Sharing too soon? Children and social media apps” that concluded that about half of children ages 10-12 used social media apps, and about a third of children ages seven-nine did – this, despite there being a law, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (Coppa), that explicitly makes it illegal to collect or store the personal information of children under 13. Which statistically meant, I was alarmed to realize, that in just a few months, one in three of my first-graders’ classmates – intrepid, impressionable explorers who still believed in the Tooth Fairy – would be mucking around on these sites.
“I was talking to a 10-year-old for a study I’m doing on TikTok, and he’s been posting on it and using it for several years,” Radesky told me. “Do you think they know how old you are? I asked him. ‘Nope.’ But you post videos of yourself. ‘Eh, they let me stay, so they must think I’m older.’ Kids have a natural curiosity to use stuff that’s a little bit above their age range, but they have such easy access to it. There are simply no effective age gates right now.”
This puts the onus on the parent to monitor what his or her child is engaging with when they log on to one of these platforms, and while our dolphin-parent-equivalents might be doing great on that front, the odds are stacked against us human mortals.
The Center’s job is a noble one, a hard one, and urgently needed. On Yom Kippur – the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, during which Jews atone for that year’s sins, and fast as a way to cleanse the body and spirit – I was confronted with an image that crystallized its mandate.
I found myself with another non-observant friend at a ramen joint, a synthesized, muzak-esque version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” playing over the speaker system. As we waited for our steaming bowls of broth and noodles to arrive, a mother and son, who looked to be around 12, sat down beside us and ordered. Then the son took out his phone and started scrolling through different social media sites – a little Facebook, a little TikTok, a little YouTube. A few moments later, his mother picked up her phone, and began scrolling, too – TikTok, Twitter, WhatsApp.
They looked up but once, to share a four-second video that elicited two smirks. Then heads went down again, praying at the altar of Jobs. I didn’t know this mother from Adam. And at least the two of them were looking at social media together, or kinda together.
But I did know that there was no way, however many years before, when her dewy little son was just blinking his way into the world, that she’d have fondly looked ahead to this dystopian lunch together, spent silently side-by-side over glowing devices.
“If we are in a mental health crisis – which we are – and we have some factors that are really hard to change, like our educational system, and some factors that are really technically easy to change, like an algorithm or code, we should,” Radesky told me. “We should work with the tech companies to figure out what settings, what content filters, what guidance would help kids have healthy relationships with these social sites.”
If only we could fast our way to redemption instead.
Sophie Brickman is a contributor to the New Yorker, the New York Times and other publications, and the author of Baby, Unplugged: One Mother’s Search for Balance, Reason, and Sanity in the Digital Age