Claire Fiddian-Green: To protect our kids, we must limit social media

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Nearly 50,000 people in the United States died by suicide in 2022, putting the suicide rate at 14.3 deaths per 100,000—the highest rate since 1941, according to newly released provisional data from the National Center for Health Statistics and reported by The Wall Street Journal.

The highest death rate was for men ages 75 and older, and rates for women ages 25-34 increased sharply. Overall, women have higher rates of suicidal thoughts than men do, but men are more likely to die from suicide.

There was a glimmer of hope when it came to suicide rates for children ages 10-14 and youth ages 15-24, which have finally returned to pre-pandemic levels. Still, suicide rates for young people remain shockingly high, at 2.3 per 100,000 for ages 10-14 and 13.9 for ages 15-24.

Mental health experts attribute the overall increase in suicide rates to a toxic brew of lingering effects from the pandemic; a shortage of health professionals; easy access to firearms; and a growing supply of increasingly deadly illicit drugs, like xylazine.

When it comes to youth, another factor is at play: the widespread use of connected devices and social media. In November, I attended a presentation given by Jonathan Haidt, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business who has written about growing rates of anxiety and other mental health illnesses in children and adolescents.

When you overlay changes in youth mental health on top of access to connected devices and social media, which didn’t exist until about 20 years ago, there’s a striking connection. In Haidt’s view—and that of others, including the U.S. surgeon general—much of the rise in anxiety and other mental health concerns can be tied to that access. A 2022 Pew Research survey found 95% of teens have access to a smartphone, and 35% said they were using at least one of the top five social media platforms “almost constantly.”

The first step to reducing anxiety and depression among young people is limiting access to both devices and social media. In a recent article in The Atlantic, for example, Haidt advocated that we “get phones out of schools now.” This can be accomplished by installing device lockers and requiring students to drop off their phones in the morning and pick them up upon dismissal. He cited examples of schools that have adopted such policies, with marked improvements in school culture and student well-being.

Parents and caregivers who want to reduce their children’s use of devices and social media can establish limitations. The American Academy of Pediatrics has a guide for creating a “family media use plan,” which includes step-by-step instructions on a variety of device-related topics, including the creation of screen-free zones for parents and kids alike. To make enforcement more feasible, Haidt recommends teaming up with the parents of your child’s friend group to establish consistent boundaries. That way, children are less likely to feel left out. Another step that parents can take is to provide children with basic cell phones, allowing them to communicate via phone or text without access to social media.

We must do more to address America’s youth mental health crisis, and part of our response should include limiting access to connected devices and social media. While certainly an unpopular decision among young people, we’ll all be better off in the long run.•

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Fiddian-Green is president and CEO of the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation, whose mission is to advance the vitality of Indianapolis and the well-being of its people. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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