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.

24 thoughts on “A Parent’s Responsibility

  1. Erik A

    “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.”

    Very well said. It was hard to do long before we all became enmeshed in social media but now little Johnny can instantly broadcast his mistreatment to the cloud and get immediate support as to the odious and shameful behavior of his parents.

  2. Guitardave

    Parents…HA!
    Mom, pop, grandma and grandpa are ALL addicted. It ain’t just the kids.

    Try sitting in a wally-world parking lot while waiting for your fares (without a phone) and watch the amount of people who can’t even walk 20 fucking yards to their car without sucking on the electro-pacifier. It spans ALL age groups.
    But beware, watching zombies can have a negative effect on your desire to participate in society.
    (PS…the fun part is when they don’t see the back-up lights come on.)

    As much as I hate the things, the phone ain’t the problem. Although it has been intentionally set up to hypnotize and trigger dopamine, like TV, radio, and print media, it’s just a delivery system. You and the other so-called ‘thought leaders’ are arguing about the hypodermic needle, while ignoring the slime inside it, and the POS spin doctors who push it in.
    FOCUS!!!, ffs.

  3. Skink

    It’s just the Evolution of Stuff. Sending kids out in the morning to play, with the admonition to return for lunch, had great effectiveness. Parents got rid of the kid for a few hours. The kid played with pals and needed little parental oversight beyond getting out of the street when cars came and staying away from the Smith’s dog. They made their own rules and developed imagination. They settled their disputes. There were stitches and broken bones. They had fun and learned the basics of how life works.

    The Evolution began: highly organized daycare, preschool, afterschool, Saturday camps of every idiocy. Parenting was a couple hours on Sunday, watching NFL. Phones are just the next turn in the Evolution of Stuff–those couple hours needed to be eliminated. The kid misses out on developing imagination and social skills, but the Rents get peace and scotch, or latte. The price is steep: when was the last time you saw a 10 year-old in a cast? How’s a kid to know he wants to be a physician or nurse? Lack of play and loss of imagination also explains all the shitty movies.

    Does the government fix this? Set the legalities aside.* Government doesn’t solve problems. Government moves problems from one pile to another. It hates problems, so it sure-as-shit ain’t up to duking with the Evolution of Stuff.

    *If I can do it, so can you.

  4. Elpey P.

    “Government doesn’t solve problems….It hates problems”

    Government sees problems as opportunities. The politician’s syllogism isn’t merely reactive. It’s rapacious. When it’s about The Children, they become Norma Desmond at the end of Sunset Boulevard.

  5. karl william liebhardt

    Breakdown of family often allowed the old order of authority to breakdown and set parents against each other vying for approval of their children. I’m sure the hand of evolution will play its part.

  6. Carlyle Moulton

    SHG

    I have 4 separate things to say on this issue.

    1/ Mobile phones and/or some of the apps on them are addictive;

    It is possible to become addicted to information, I know because I became that way as soon as I had too much access to newspapers (3 each day). I am still addicted but now via broadband internet on a mid-tower computer with a 24” screen. Why else do I read every one of your posts? In all I suspect that I spend at least 3 hours/day browsing internet sites and blogs. Some are quite clearly the repositories of the conventional wisdom of the “left”, eg. Mother Jones, Salon and The Smirking Chimp, some of them are of eclectic bloggers who are not easily classified Craig Murray craigmurray.org.uk, Glenn Greenwald (video show on Rumble), Jonathan Cook and Jonathan Turley and some are most definitely counter-mainstream opinion eg. counterpunch.org, dissidentvoice.org and informationclearinghouse.info.

    I often travel by bus and notice that most people with mobile phones are using them intensively and I do not believe that they are mostly doing work. Mobile phones give access to games and information and thus are just as addictive as computers that give such access. The only reason that I am not addicted to my smart phone is that in 1998 I became addicted to the internet via computer and prefer a screen of reasonable size. In addition to information access in itself being addictive some of the apps are explicitly designed to addict. I was once sitting in the bus behind a woman who was playing games on her smart phone and I noticed that the graphic displayed at the beginning and end of each game were very like those that appear on modern gaming machines to cause dopamine hits that keep people playing.

    My spending several hours on this post is an example of my own addiction.

    2/ Not all parents are competent;

    To be competent parents they have to learn psychological interaction mechanisms that do not create unnecessary conflict but they in fact learn from their own parents who may not have learned these skills. The usual rule is that parenting styles are multi-generational so the bad habits are transmitted ever downward.

    In fact it really requires a functional mileau in society including neighbours schools social organisations ……. Defects in any can derail socialisation. Some of the woke madness in schools that you criticise is relevant. It takes a functional social mileau to raise a child.

    It is my belief that the vast majority of humans have thought patterns and patterns of communication that cause conflict and require considerable help from psychologists and/or psychiatrists which is expensive and some of their defects result in their imprisonment where such remedies are absolutely unavailable.

    My pre-52 year age self is an example of faulty thinking and lack of emotional control. Some also need the correct drugs. Until I was over age 50 I was not on the two drugs stopping me from compulsive behaviours prompting road rage assaulting people and attacking police. (I am not joking).

    If AI doesn’t go totally wrong one thing we might hope for is that every member of species homo sapiens can get access to a competent AI psych. However the professionals in the field won’t like it
    just as lawyers will not like competition from competent AI lawyers (not Chatgpt or Gemeni).

    3/ Some members of species homo sapiens have brain problems. Some can be ameliorated by cognitive behaviour therapy drugs but some cannot. Until the age of 40 I had obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) which was a major but not the only cause of my problems. The wrong kind of OCD can make life really unpleasant. After 52 my mood instability (the second) problem mostly but not completely fixed. I still have the occasional destructive tantrum if too many things go wrong in a long sequence. Each irritation shortens the fuse to my explosive anger until eventually BOOM and valuable things get broken.

    4/ Competent parenting is not possible for those stuck among the working poor who are time poor or the marginalized and occupation army policed ethnic underclasses or those who have a man down the street who lets his and your children do all the things that they forbid.

    Only total parental surveillance via the internet would allow a competent parent to control all that needs to be controlled and that would have the negative effect of teaching said children to fear that they are under constant surveillance (which in the not too distant future they may by the state).

      1. LY

        It took me a few seconds to parse the meaning of your comment based on my experience on this blog and your previous comments. Someone else on the spectrum might not be able get the inference depending on where they are and how used to your style or not they are.

        Just saying…

  7. RJ

    Except it’s a bit facile to simply say that it’s up to parents to control their kids’ use of social media, with no help from the govertment or institutions. You might as well say that there should be no laws requiring seatbelts, or children possessing drugs, because it should be up to good parenting. Sure, you can take your teenager’s phone away, except to do so now isolates your child from the other children, since they’re now all relying on social media for communications. At our middle school, the school tells the children on field trips when they can text their parents for pick up; the teachers sometimes tell the children they can go on their phones during breaks in class; try being the one child who doesn’t have a phone. But if there’s a law it gives parents an out. Florida should be commended for at least trying.

    1. Skink

      RJ–I’m so happy you wrote this! I wanted to say the same thing! But I figured analogies need context and some relation. Same with personal experience. Then, I thought all I know about law and its history in the Swamp.

      At the end of my consderins’, I decided I was just not gonna say stupid stuff. Thank you!

    2. Miles

      Is there a constitutional amendment prohibiting abridging the right not to wear seatbelts? Is there a constitutional amendment prohibiting the right to take drugs? Is there a constitutional amendment prohibiting abridging free speech?

      See what I did there? Unlike that mean old Skink, I’m here to help.

      1. RJ

        Maybe you should make those arguments to the author Jonathan Haidt, since my examples come from his book. You’re obviously a lot smarter than him. I appreciate your argument that prohibitions on social media for a 9-year-old is a violation of the First Amendment.

        1. SHG Post author

          Haidt is brilliant, but he’s a social psychologist. This is a law blog. Here, we do law. Haidt doesn’t have to worry about such things.

          1. RJ

            Yes – I apologize for commenting on your piece based on my own recent experiences as a parent and not based strictly on constitutional law. I had begun reading Haidt’s book and was excited to read your post about it. Sorry – won’t happen again.

    3. Pedantic Grammar Police

      If your kids attend public school, then you have abdicated your parental responsibilities, and social media is probably not going to make a difference.

      1. LY

        Or maybe not everyone here is a millionaire lawyer with a spouse who doesn’t work outside the home to home-school and can’t afford an extra 50K – 100k a year in the budget for private schools and tutors and time to drive them everywhere.

  8. Austin Collins

    Furthering the goal of “not making people stupider,” there’s an important element you’ve elided a few times here(*) : population prevalence vs improving diagnostic criteria.

    Basically, how do we know if mental health problems are increasing in the “yutes”?

    Full disclosure, my education was in theoretical physics, and I work in AI. I am not an expert on the mental state of America’s youth.

    Fun question: how does one differentiate between an increase in incidence (ie greater percentage it applies to) , an improvement in screening(**) (ie by asking more people if they have symptoms of mental health issues — broke my ankle last week and was screened for depression), and broadening diagnostic criteria? (eg, oh, we used to think that only frank, debilitating autism counted, and that severe Asperger was a entirely different thing, now we count both as austism)?

    Before discussing the tradeoffs between government overreach, and hysteria over a “nothing burger”, please understand that historical trends are heavily influenced by all of the above. Could very well be teens are the same as always. Could very well be smartphones are such a new modality they break historical “when I was your age…” cycles and are an actual public health concern.

    But, please, understand the confounding factors. I’m not aware of clear data either way, for what it’s worth.

    Would like to borrow authority by saying I used to be married to a cardiologist, but our mean ole editor is *still* married to a MD, so he wins on that one. 😉

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