A frightening trend emerged when I was working in Catholic school administration. The acceleration of problems related to sexuality for young kids was startling, beginning even as early as kindergarten. There was one common source: technology. Without a doubt, the fact that young children regularly use smartphones has led to frequent exposure to sexual images and messages that have made some kids question their own God-given identity. After hearing of problem week after week, I wanted to shout an SOS to every parent: “Please, take away devices from your children, because it’s really wounding them.” We must exercise greater vigilance.
This is not just the overreaction of one Catholic educator. Even Denver Public Schools offered a workshop I attended on “Teens and Screens,” speaking of a public health emergency due to the impact of social media on the mental health of teenagers. Coming under increasing scrutiny, TikTok recently placed a 60 minute a day limit on usage for those under 18 (although they can continue after entering a passcode), with the head of their “trust and safety” department stating, “We believe digital experiences should bring joy and play a positive role in how people express themselves, discover ideas, and connect.” The opposite is occurring, with the CDC finding that nearly 60% of teen girls struggle with depression and almost a third have considered suicide. The spike in depression and suicide began in 2012, at the same time smartphones were introduced. As technology use has increased each year, mental health difficulties have increased as well.
We cannot keep our heads in the sand while this major crisis unfolds. Young people are experiencing an identity crisis, inflamed by ideological forces using social media and entertainment to call their sexual identity into question at young ages. In Catholic schools, we saw kindergartners and first graders imitating inappropriate things they had seen on screens. We heard from a third grader that she identified as asexual after she was groomed by an adult through an iPad, given to her by her parents. We often heard of bullying and sexting occurring over phones, even among elementary school students. These are the cases that make me repeat: “Parents, don’t give your kids a phone. Please take away their phones!”
I am a father of six with three teenagers and try to be very vigilant. We use Gab phones and Light phones for our teenagers that prevent any direct internet access. Our younger kids have never needed a phone. In Catholic schools, we often had to remind school parents that they could always call their kids at school and their kids would always be allowed to call them if there was a need. In their desire to protect their kids by having constant access to them through a phone, parents are inadvertently harming them by giving them this constant exposure to harmful influences on the web and social media.
Parents also need to examine their own technology usage. I took the drastic step, almost three years ago now, of introducing my smartphone to a sledgehammer. It was one of the most freeing moments of my life, as I felt a weight lift from my shoulders and a greater peace of mind. It cut out many distractions and gave me more freedom for reading and prayer. It also gave me the opportunity to witness to my kids that they, too, can live without a smartphone, that we had traded too much for the conveniences of its apps: namely, peace of mind and space for others, including God! It’s hard to protect our children if we are not protecting ourselves!
Lent provides us an opportunity to unplug. As we approach the end of this holy season, you could perhaps try an experiment. Keep your phone turned off for a few hours at a time. Instead, spend some more time in prayer and reading a spiritual book. See if you can stay focused, growing a little bit each day in your ability to tune out distractions and increase your ability to attend to God. And then, when Lent is over, try to keep it going. Carve out technology-free spaces in your life and dedicate more time both to God and to the tangible presence of the people right in front of you.
If we are going to protect our children from the harmful effects of technology, especially the saturation of social media, we will need to model an alternative path. We need God’s grace to make the sacrifice of stepping back from the convenience that technology brings. In return, there is much to gain, going back to a greater peace of mind and the ability to focus on others. Without the barrier of screens, you can also be more present to the teens that need your help in breaking out of the net in which they are caught.
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