Child PsychologyChild's physical activityExpert ArticleNord Anglia EducationParenting TIps


  • 16 May 2024

US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy frequently visits college campuses, where he’s concerned about the impact of technology on young people. Dining halls are quieter, with students glued to screens, making connection difficult. Despite desires for balance, no one seems to have found it. Murthy warns that social media isn’t designed for balance but for maximum engagement, contributing to rising rates of anxiety and depression. Recent data links smartphone uses to learning loss and mental health issues in youth. In May 2023, Murthy issued a public health advisory on social media’s risks for children. Jacob Rosch, from Collège du Léman in Switzerland, notes parents becoming more cautious about phone use.

“I get the sense the tide is turning,” he said. “They aren’t giving their kids unmonitored access to the internet like they used to.”

The Anxious Generation?

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt warns of a global rise in mental health issues among youth due to the shift from play-based childhood to phone-based one since the 2010s. He attributes this to a flood of addictive content designed for kids, leading to solitary childhoods. Haidt urges parents to prioritize online protection. Despite the alarming trends, he sees hope in collective desire for change among parents, educators, and Gen Z. Change, he believes, is possible when there’s consensus despite fear.

Haidt offers a four-point plan to turn things around:

  1. Don’t give children smartphones until high school. Give them flip phones instead. “Millennials had them and they were fine,” he said.
  2. Don’t let kids have social media until 16. The only reason the age requirement for a new account is 13 is because a congressman (now Senator) set it at 16 and lobbyists watered it down to 13.
  3. Ban phones in schools. “This provides the biggest bang for your buck,” he says.
  4. Help kids rediscover play, including letting then play outside, unsupervised.

Many parents may find drastic measures daunting, considering their kids already have phones and starting a mass movement feels exhausting. Jacob Rosch of Collège du Léman agrees, acknowledging the complexity of the issue. While there’s no simple solution, efforts are underway. The school conducts student surveys on tech use and hosts workshops led by students themselves, fostering a collaborative approach to address the challenges.

 A better four-point plan

Murthy offers a more compelling four-point plan on how to shield kids from the worst effects of social media: Protect the four things kids need most to develop well: sleep, learning, in-person connection and physical activity (if you like acronyms, it spells SLIP).

Sleep: Rather than ban phones altogether, ban phones in bedrooms. No devices after 9 pm, period. A meta-analysis of 20 cross-sectional studies of children aged 6-19 years old revealed a strong association between bedtime access to and use of media devices and inadequate sleep quantity and quality The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that children 6 to 12 years of age should sleep 9 to 12 hours per night and teenagers 13 to 18 years of age should sleep 8 to 10 hours per night for optimal health.

Learning: Ban phones in school. Research shows that removing smartphones can improve student test scores. The UK government passed legislation to do this in 2024. Expect more countries to follow (According to a UNESCO report on education systems in roughly 200 countries, about one-quarter have enacted comparable restrictions).

In-person connection: Encourage kids to spend time together device-free. This is hard, especially for older teens. Suggest ideas (cooking dinner with music on), or watching a movie without texting, or walking the dog and leaving devices at home. Model device free dinners, and bigger family, church or community gatherings where phone-use is actively discouraged.

Physical activity: Finally, make sure kids get exercise. Ride a bike, play tennis, go for a walk or a run, play soccer or basketball with friends. Zumba, line dance, hip hop; whatever it takes to get moving. Exercise is one of the most effective ways to protect both body and mind.

While Jonathan Haidt’s arguments have sparked debate, not all experts agree. Candice Odgers from UC Irvine disputes the notion of digital technologies rewiring children’s brains and causing a mental health crisis. She suggests existing mental health issues may drive increased social media use. Jacob Rosch emphasizes moderation and a “healthy media diet” to address concerns. As the debate continues, US Surgeon General Murthy’s call for action to support children’s well-being is seen as prudent. Regardless of the outcome, prioritizing sleep, fostering real-world relationships, and encouraging physical activity remain vital for our kids’ development, despite potential resistance.