Millennials Had Boring Childhoods. Our Kids Are Paying the Price.

First we gave them anxiety, then we gave them cell phones

millennials had boring childhoods universal
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Walk down the street and there’s nary a kid (or person for that matter) who doesn’t have their nose in a phone. This is despite the proven connection between phone use—especially time spent on social media—and the steep decline in our children’s mental health.

While millennials largely escaped the decimating impact of expanded digital technology in the early 2010s, Gen Z is bearing the brunt with rates of depression and anxiety rising by over 50 percent between 2010 and 2019. Loneliness, friendlessness and worsening academic performance has also risen, while suicide rates increased significantly—by as much as 131 percent for girls ages 10 to 14.

Some social psychologists, like Jonathan Haidt who recently penned a brilliant plea in The Atlantic for the end of the phone-based childhood, are even shouting out a direct correlation between Gen Z’s mental health decline and the arrival of smartphones in 2012. As Haidt describes, “Once young people began carrying the entire internet in their pockets, available to them day and night, it altered their daily experiences and developmental pathways across the board.”

But there’s more to it: Kids today have unparalleled access to information, friends and curated activities and experiences—something that, in my own childhood, required real effort to come by. (I had to go to the library to do research for a school project; I had to dial a friend’s house phone to make plans, all the while crossing my fingers that they were even home to take my call.)

But at the same time that we millennials were learning to navigate the world, we were also learning how big, bad and scary it was. Razor blades were coming for our Halloween baskets. WACO hit the year I turned 10. Columbine the year I turned 16. Helicopter parenting originated in our childhood, most likely the result of an increase in childhood abductions. (Adam Walsh was tragically kidnapped and killed in 1981, which led to the launch of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 1984.) So sure, we had freedom by necessity, but we also had anxiety about said freedom.

In short: Our parents taught us to fear the world. Then we taught that fear to our children. Then, we handed them smartphones.

Reflecting on my own disconnected childhood, I’m aware of how much communicating I had to do with my parents, who allowed me freedoms, but set clear rules and boundaries. I informed them of my whereabouts (I’m getting off the school bus at Amy’s house tomorrow; I’m walking next door to my neighbor Katie’s) but upon arrival, I was on my own.

On the contrary, if your kid has a smartphone today, pretty much all of their real world activities are virtually supervised. We use devices to surveil our kids’ whereabouts; we monitor their texts, their posts, their FaceTimes. Any and all idle time they have is digitally interrupted…by us. And in doing so, we’ve taught them to be device dependent, the opposite of carefree.

Cue the modern-day parenting crisis: As Haidt so accurately describes, we have reached a state of over-protecting our kids in the real world while under-protecting them in the virtual one. In other words, as more and more parents embrace a helicopter style—justified by worries about physical danger—there’s comfort in the connectedness (and safety) a smartphone can bring. The downside is that we’re failing to set boundaries in an online world that is often more dangerous than the physical one. (A recent Gallup poll revealed that American teens currently spend 5 hours a day on social media platforms and up to 9 hours on screen-based activities, schoolwork not included.)

So, how can we walk back our kids’ digital use? How can we give them a sliver of the boring childhoods we never appreciated at the time?

Jen Burke, an early childhood therapist at Rise Wellness Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan says that often, it’s about going back to basics. “It’s complicated because promoting independence and providing a phone for safety don’t actually have to be mutually exclusive,” she says. “We can provide kids more freedom to play and explore the world, while also giving them—and us—a sense of safety through access to a basic phone or watch to connect in case of emergencies, which limits tech for other purposes.” (For example, the Bark phone which puts parents in charge of all internet access.)

Of course, that doesn’t address the problem of FOMO—and the pressure to keep up with peers, which Haidt refers to as the “collective action” problem. In other words, unless everyone logs off, kids without constant access are going to feel left out. “I think this is a space for parents to be more collaborative with their children and less authoritative,” Burke explains. “Have open discussions with your kids about peer pressure, about their values and priorities and the consequences of their actions. Talk about what they like about their online engagement and what they don’t, teaching critical thinking when it comes to what they are engaging with online. For example, if scrolling certain influencers on Instagram is having a negative impact on body image, talk about ways to disengage or provide a thought challenge to help your kid identify their own feelings surrounding self and self-worth.”

For what it’s worth, restricting smartphone (and social media) is possible. Jaime, a Brooklyn-based mom of three I chatted with admits it hasn’t been easy, but she has made it work. Her kids (ages 12, 8 and 5) have iPads only, set time limits and restricted communication. Her oldest daughter has an Apple Watch with the “School Time” setting that disables texting while she’s in school. “As far as I know, she’s the only kid in her 7th grade class of about 100 without a phone,” says Jaime, who has long followed a program called Wait Until 8th that encourages delayed smartphone use.

But she admits it’s an uphill battle. “We ran into a bit of trouble at the beginning of the school year because the kids have to scan into school each day electronically. The middle and high schoolers do it with their phones, but because my daughter didn’t have one, she had to wait a few days to get an ID card to scan in. She didn’t love that, but it was a temporary annoyance—and something I’ve pointed out to the school: Do they really want to be normalizing kids having to have phones?”

Perhaps, it’s these temporary annoyances that we need our kids to get more comfortable with. Much like we spent time in the 80s and 90s bored…or listening to the same Alanis Morrisette song over and over…or having to walk home because we didn’t have a way to contact Mom for a ride, we need our kids to sit with discomfort so they they can figure out the real world on their own without the digital one constantly at their backs. We need to put away our own anxieties (and phones!). After all, we’re their greatest role models.

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Royal family expert, a cappella alum, mom

Rachel Bowie is Senior Director of Special Projects & Royals at PureWow, where she covers parenting, fashion, wellness and money in addition to overseeing initiatives within...