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Guest Opinion

Is technology damaging our youngsters?


About a decade ago, as I was sitting on a beach in South Jersey, I witnessed something for the first time. There was a group of four couples in their late teens, sitting in a circle. Normally, one would expect a vociferous interaction in that get-together. Instead, I noticed each young adult staring at their iPhone, typing away. It was as if zombies had invaded the space and vocal chords had been rendered useless.

That was during the early days of a trend that has greatly altered how we interact with one another, how we think and what we believe. And, according to a recently released book by a well-respected social psychologist, it coincides with the rise of mental illness among our younger generation.

Jonathan Haidt is the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. His latest release, The Anxious Generation, pinpoints a strong correlation between concentration on iPhones and the onset of a spike in depression, suicide and general stress.

First available to the public on June 29, 2007, the iPhone gained wide use in the general market by the early 2010s. Haidt cites the first five years of that decade as particularly instructive.

“You can see a sudden and very large upturn in major depressive episodes, beginning around 2012,” he says, referring to Generation Z, or those born after 1995. He calls the period between 2010 and 2015 as “the great rewiring.” He highlights a 150% increase in reported depression during that time. And, he states, the spike “happened among all races and social classes.”

Haidt says while teens had cell phones as early as the late 1990s, they lacked internet access. The internet brought an endless stream of videos, texting and general information. For young minds, it also brought an over-saturation and isolation. More youngsters began to have virtual interaction instead of actual in-person social play.

These devices “can ping you continually throughout the day, urging you to check out what everyone is saying and doing,” Haidt says. “This kind of connectivity offers few of the benefits of talking directly with friends. In fact, for many young people it is poisonous.”

The iPhone creates instant volatility in various kinds of messages. Images of supposedly perfect people can make others feel inferior, particularly damaging to developing minds. It can spread false rumors and unsubstantiated information at breakneck speed. We see the impact it has on politics in our country, with far too many adults falling for fake news reports. For youngsters with underdeveloped abilities to discriminate, there is a much greater impact.

Some seven years ago Facebook’s first president, Sean Parker, described a type of addiction which he referred to as a “social validation feedback loop.” He said “a like or comment on a post sends users a little dopamine hit,” which then encourages more posts. We see that through the various social media apps, including Instagram and TikTok, as well as Facebook. We adults are willing participants in the process. For developing youngsters, the ramifications can be life-altering.

We have witnessed how children receiving gifts over the years can be more interested in the boxes that house them. They brings out the creative spirit, as they utilize the cardboard material to erect perceived houses or forts. They seem unrestrained from the confines of programs. The virtual worlds of which they become a part via iPhones require restriction and entrance into what can be dark passages, worlds that are not yet understood. The teens who are affected by this world, according to Haidt’s study, are entrapped in that virtual space. It stunts growth and seems to foster depression in them.

In his book Them, former U.S. Senator and present University of Florida President Ben Sasse said: “Most Americans just don’t have community cohesion like we used to. We don’t feel we are connected to our neighbors in any meaningful ways.”

For young adults, the need for true connection is greater and the consequences for its absence are more crucial. That group on the beach formed a snapshot into a world of isolation. It is one that now requires proper parenting and guidance back into the real world of meaningful social interaction.

Jeff Hurvitz ( is a freelance writer who lives in Abington.

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