The danger? It's our kids' constant use of mobile technology.
I know that language sounds alarmist. But our collective addiction to our phones has significant, negative neurological effects on children. It affects kids as young as just a few months old, and it has become a full-blown crisis that most people are doing absolutely nothing to address.
As Victoria Proody, a Toronto-based occupational therapist, has written (and others have documented elsewhere), the rise of ubiquitous smartphones and tablets coincides with heartbreaking increases in the rates at which young people suffer from serious mental illnesses--and even commit suicide. For example:
1. There's been a drastic increase in rates of suicide among children.
Over the past decade, there was a 100 percent increase in the number of children and adolescents admitted to hospitals for attempted suicide or self-harm, and a 200 percent increase in the suicide rate for children aged 10 to 14.
2. We've seen a significant rise in the rate of diagnoses of ADHD.
Between 2003 and 2011, the rate at which kids were diagnosed with ADHD increased 43 percent--an increase of more than 2 million over the earlier time period.
3. Many more of our children are being diagnosed with serious psychological disorders.
Just over 20 percent of Americans under age 18 either now have a "seriously debilitating mental disorder," or have had one in the past, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
4. There is an epidemic of teen depression.
Between 2005 and 2014, the percentage of 12 to 20-year-olds who had at least one "major depressive episode" jumped 37 percent.
Meantime, studies have shown that 70 percent of children under age 12 use tablets, that 40 percent of children aged 2 to 4 "often found some mobile device in their hands," and that "25 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 5 have [their own] smartphone."
A silent tragedy
I have the zeal of a convert on this issue. What shocked me into facing the reality recently was a blog post that Proody wrote recently about what she calls the "silent tragedy affecting today's children."
(More than 10 million people have now read and shared the article. I tracked Proody down and talked with her while she was on vacation in the Czech Republic with her family.)
"It's truly a tragedy. It's terrifying," Proody told me. "Our children are in a devastating emotional state and it only gets worse and worse with each year. What I wrote in the article is obvious to many teachers and professionals, but not so obvious to parents."
Of course, correlation is not the same thing as causation, Proody was careful to point out, adding that there have always been children who were born with disabilities, and who are likely to face struggles despite their parents' best efforts to provide them with a well-balanced environment.
"These are not the children I was talking about," Proody said. "I was talking about many other children whose challenges are shaped by the environment--and once parents change the home environment, [the] children change."
Three-month-old babies with iPads
Proody says one impact of constant video technology is that she often sees children in her practice who simply can't cope with the less-stimulating aspects of daily life.
"Life is about ability of the brain to delay gratification. This is what brings us real success and happiness in life. Unfortunately, the brains of our children are rewired for instant gratification, and constant fun," she said. "Do you know how many kids today cannot eat without an iPad? Do you know how many kids can't sit in a car, in a restaurant, wait in line for 5 min without gadgets? It is truly an epidemic."
Perhaps most shocking is just how young some children are when they start habitually using technology.
"I see three-month old babies [with] iPads," Proody continued. "Imagine how boring real life is for their brains if they are preconditioned to loads of visual and auditory stimulation basically from birth," Proody told me, adding, "Children should have no technology until they are at least 2 years of age."
The good news (mostly)
The good news, Proody told me, is that parents can deprogram their kids' addictions efficiently and fairly quickly, mainly by changing their behavior and environments.
"Children change the moment parents change their perspective on parenting and kids' lifestyles," she told me. "In my practice, I have seen changes in kids' social-emotional state just weeks following changes in home environment."
Among her specific suggestions for parents (you can find more here):
- Set limits and remember that you are your child's parent, not their friend.
- Be willing to say no to your kids, when what they tell you they want isn't what you think they need.
- Give them "nutritious food and limits snacks," and insist that they "spend one hour a day [outdoors] in green space."
- Teach them skills rather than doing everything for them. (She gives the example of not peeling a banana for a 5-year-old, and not bringing a child's lunch to school if he or she forgets it.)
- Limit their technology--and don't let kids use phones and tablets as an instant cure for boredom.
"We must make changes in our kids' lives before this entire generation of children will be medicated!" she told me. "It is not too late yet, but soon it will be."