A Parent’s Responsibility

Riffing off Jon Haidt’s argument that the primary culprit in the degradation of youth is the smartphone, David French takes up the cause.

Older generations reflect on the deficiencies of “kids these days,” and they find something new to blame. The latest technology and new forms of entertainment are always bewitching our children. In my time, I’ve witnessed several distinct public panics over television, video games and music. They’ve all been overblown.

This time, however, I’m persuaded — not that smartphones are the sole cause of increasing mental health problems in American kids, but rather that they’re a prime mover in teen mental health in a way that television, games and music are not. No one has done more to convince me than Jonathan Haidt. He’s been writing  about  the  dangers  of  smartphones and social media for years, and his latest Atlantic story masterfully marshals the evidence for smartphones’ negative influence on teenage life.

Others disagree, of course, whether taking the position that there is nothing wrong with kids these days or that their anxiety and depression is the fault of their elders, who have left them a world filled with climate change, war, genocide and all the ‘isms. Some argue that kids today are no different than they’ve ever been. Then again, their mental health status and nihilism tends not to support the view that smartphones play a significant role in the problem.

Neither smartphones nor social media are solely responsible for declining teen mental health. The rise of smartphones correlates with a transformation of parenting strategies, away from permitting free play and in favor of highly managed schedules and copious amounts of organized sports and other activities. The rise of smartphones also correlates with the fraying of our social fabric. Even there, however, the phones have their roles to play. They provide a cheap substitute for in-person interaction, and the constant stream of news can heighten our anxiety.

So if there is a problem, and there, shouldn’t government do something about it?

At the same time, however, I’m wary of government intervention to suppress social media or smartphone access for children. The people best positioned to respond to their children’s online life are parents, not regulators, and it is parents who should take the lead in responding to smartphones. Otherwise, we risk a legal remedy that undermines essential constitutional doctrines that protect both children and adults.

Numerous states have decided to stick their nose into regulating the internet, in general, and social media, in particular. On the legal level, these efforts invariably violate the First Amendment. Just because we don’t like the ideas that are spread over social media doesn’t mean they aren’t fully protected speech, or that young people’s rights to see ideas, and express ideas, on social media can be abridged because they’re just kids.

But if laws regulating access to social media, to the internet, are unconstitutional, what then? There’s always banning smartphones in schools, a lawful regulation despite students and parents being less than thrilled at the prospect, but that is merely a daytime salve that leaves kids free to tiktok all night long. Isn’t there anything else we can do?

But the primary responsibility for policing kids’ access to phones should rest with parents, not with the state. Not every social problem has a governmental solution, and the more that the problem is rooted in the inner life of children, the less qualified the government is to address it.

And don’t think that a parent-centered approach to dealing with the challenge of online generation is inherently inadequate. As we’ve seen throughout American history, parenting cultures can change substantially, based on both information and experience. Public intellectuals like Jonathan Haidt perform an immense public service by informing the public, and just as parents adjust children’s diets or alter discipline habits in response to new information, they can change the culture around cellphones.

Ah, yes. Parents being parents. Parents doing the hard and unpleasant job of parenting. Parents aren’t “inherently inadequate.” Parents could be the solution. Except that it’s hard. It’s unpleasant. Try telling your kids they can’t do what all the other kids are doing. Try telling your kids they can’t do something they desperately want to do. How can you keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Snapchat?

Parents want their children to like them. Not just love them, but like them. Parents want the same validation they get from “likes” on the twitterX, and they want it from their kids so they feel they don’t totally suck as parents, even as they suck as parents.

Being integrally involved in your children’s lives takes time, which is time parents can’t spend on their own “wellness” and work/life balance. What about their self-care? What about their “me time”? Will no one care about the parents?

And ever if a parent is willing to be the bad guy, willing to put in the time necessary, they will suffer for naught as the parent down the street will let all the kids come over and use their smartphone to youtube away. There’s always one, and nature favors the lowest common denominator, that parent who refuses to be the good parent while believing with smug righteousness that they are the good parent and you’re just a budding curmudgeon.

The prevailing belief may not be that the kids are alright, but that somebody should do something, as long as that somebody isn’t you. So various states are enacting unconstitutional and untenable laws to do what parents won’t. Maybe the real problem isn’t smartphones, but parents.

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