By Carrie Brown McWhorter
What did you think when you saw the cover of this week’s edition?
Does the photo remind you of your own daughter, granddaughter, niece or neighbor, headed confidently into the first day of a new school year? Do you see a young woman you hope your daughter becomes? Or do you see the image of what you fear will never come to pass?
In this annual Back to Campus spotlight, we strive to provide helpful information for students and their parents, grandparents and ministry leaders as they embark on another school year.
But we all know that whether the student in the photo is a model or a student in your youth group, a smile and a backpack don’t tell the whole story.
Behind their bravado, many teenagers are struggling. A 2021 report by the CDC said more than 4 in 10 (42%) students felt persistently sad or hopeless and nearly one-third (29%) experienced poor mental health. There are numerous other studies and organizations reporting similar statistics.
Today’s greater awareness of mental health means individuals are more likely to acknowledge their struggles and seek help. And no doubt we can point to a lot of factors that might contribute to a growth in anxiety and depression among teens.
But health care providers, teachers and others are increasingly pointing the finger at one source of concern — phones.
Changing the world
The first smartphone, the IBM Simon, hit the market in 1994. The device came with a calendar, address book, calculator and email.
In 2000, the first camera phone was introduced in Japan; in 2001, smartphones got connected to the internet.
And in 2007, Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone. It could take photos, play music and videos, and easily access not only the internet but also millions of apps to do just about anything the human mind could imagine.
It was, as Jobs put it, “revolutionary.”
But revolutions always come with a cost. Revolutions bring rapid and fundamental changes, often without considering the long-term ramifications of those changes.
The internet, smartphones and apps are not evil. They are tools that help us communicate, connect and be more productive (see “7 ways students can harness the professional benefits of social media”).
But the evolution of the smartphone and the emergence of all those apps created what my internet repair technician recently called “the most addictive drug humans ever invented.”
Among the most addicted — children and teens.
That’s according to U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who released a public statement in May about the “profound risk” of smartphone use, specifically time spent on social media, to young people, many of whom are spending a minimum of 3.5 hours each day on social media apps.
Murthy says our children “have become unknowing participants in a decades-long experiment” — one not governed by institutional review boards but instead by a drive for profit.
There aren’t any great ideas on the horizon for managing the various mental, physical and emotional crises created by excessive use of social media.
Murthy’s advisory calls for “urgent action by policymakers, technology companies, researchers, families and young people alike to gain a better understanding of the full impact of social media use, maximize the benefits and minimize the harms of social media platforms, and create safer, healthier online environments to protect children.”
What can we as parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, ministry leaders and friends do?
Perhaps the most important thing is to realize that we interact with our children in one hemisphere of their world.
In the other hemisphere — that online space of YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok — there is a cacophony of voices, urging them to hurt themselves, to change who they are and to reject the teachings of their parents, the church and every other authority who would urge them to love the young man or woman God created them to be.
They need us to engage with love and truth as they navigate our postmodern culture.
And there’s no time like the start of a new school year to learn more about the apps students are using, talk about the pros and cons, and set reasonable, healthy boundaries for time spent online.
Need a place to start? See “5 ways pastors can help families navigate social media” on page 14 for advice on how ministry leaders might help families better navigate the online world.