Jon K. Rust

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian and co-president of Rust Communications.

How much are America's children suffering from smart phones, Snapchat and sexting, and what can be done about it?

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The setting was a Harvard Business School classroom. The question came from a boy who looked to be around 12 years old, “How much time do I have to use a smart phone to be called an addict?” It was a question, it seemed, sparked because of his parents, who considered his use to be over the line, and there was a note of defiance in the tone.

The answer deflected the focus from addiction — the expert thinks problems around phones are less about addiction than an “overuse disorder,” similar to binge eating, where a person loses control of a necessary resource despite negative consequences — but he established an important context for the boy to consider: “Be aware of what you’re not doing because you’re using the phone [not sleeping, or going outside, or meeting with friends in person]. Other things will help you feel better. The more you use the phone, studies show, the sadder you will become, and the meaner you’ll get when your parents ask you to put it away.”

Over the weekend I was at my 20-year reunion from graduate school, and catching up with friends was a highlight. But the event also provided an opportunity to join sessions on hot topics and new research, taught by business school and other Harvard faculty. One of those sessions was provocatively titled: “Smartphones and Snapchat and Sexting, Oh My! The Mediatrician’s Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy, Effective Children in the Digital Age.” It was led by Michael O. Rich, a professor at Harvard Medical School and at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and an author, who writes a blog with the Center on Media and Child Health at cmch.tv.

Dr. Rich shared research about how much time most children with phones are spending on screens: much more than any other activity. With that connectivity, they have become increasingly disconnected to other people, anxious, sleep-deprived and defiant. And research shows, unsurprisingly: their grades suffer while, disproportionately, behavioral problems escalate.

Some of the statistics Rich shared were mindboggling — and horrifying. Forty-two percent of 10- to 17-year-olds have ended up on porn sites, with the average age of first visiting a porn site now at 9 years old (a stat evenly split between boys and girls). Four percent of children have been asked for sexual pictures of themselves by strangers (that’s one kid in virtually every school classroom), while 14.8 percent of 12 to 17 year-olds have texted sexual messages or explicit photos of themselves and 27.4 percent have received them. More than 40 percent have been the victims of cyberbullying.

In interviews with teenagers, Rich has been told “sexting is like the new ‘second base’,” even though images shared “never go away on the Internet,” and 12% of teenagers are involved in “sexting without consent,” where something sexual they’ve shared about themselves — usually photos — ends up spread more broadly than they originally intended, never to disappear.

Meanwhile, kids who keep their phones “under their pillow” at night for fear of missing out on some “important” message (with the excuse the phone is needed as an alarm clock) increasingly suffer from lack of sleep, leading to obesity, anxiety and depression. Suicides among teens — especially girls — have exploded since the advent of the smart phone.

When a parent at the HBS session asked, “When IS the right age to give a child a phone?” Rich responded, “When does the child need one?” It wasn’t an idle question. It might make sense for a child to have a phone when biking across town, for example. Moreover, Rich doesn’t believe “abstinence” is the answer, because social media-connected devices are more-and-more being given to children by their schools — or the kids will use them at their friends — and it’s difficult to totally separate kids from technology. Instead, its parents’ responsibility to teach kids how to use phones responsibly — and to be good role models themselves.

“You don’t just throw kids keys to a car and expect them to learn how to drive on their own,” he said. Phones (and tablets and computers) are powerful and dangerous tools, like cars, and too few people are helping kids learn how to use them properly. Too few are setting important ground rules or, even, understanding what’s typically going on.

For example, in studies he’s conducted, the Chromebooks and other computers sent home by schools: 16 minutes each day is, on average, actually used for homework. An hour and three minutes is used to listen to music or watch videos. An hour and 29 minutes is used for social media and online games.

The challenge is to teach kids — in the technological environment now dominant — how to manage these powerful tools. Getting devices out of bedrooms is a starting point. Twenty-nine percent of teens and 12% of parents sleep with a phone in bed. Thirty-six percent of those teens and 26% of parents will wake upon the phone’s buzz to respond to a text. Dr. Rich calls it not only a “fear of missing out (FOMO)” but a “fear of being left out (FOBLO).” The activity, though, leads to decreased health.

Other recommendations include helping kids develop critical thinking about their activity. Help them identify what they’re giving up when they spend time on phones (or video games) and to set a schedule for usage, instead of mindlessly being ensnared by devices designed to engage and manipulate. Start from a perspective of love and understanding, not diminishment or punishment. Conversely, don’t use devices as treats.

Teach kids to use phones as a tool, to be used and managed with prioritization around specific tasks.

He also suggested “taking regular Sabbaths from technology,” and he pointed to a worldwide study he’s conducting where university students are giving up technology for periods of time. Initially, these students are in dismay: “I literally did not know what to do with myself,” from the UK. “I didn’t use my phone all night. It was a horrible day. I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT MEDIA!” from Chile. “I felt lonely as if I was in a small cage on an island,” from China. “I was itching, like a crackhead, because I could not use my phone,” from the USA.

Two weeks later, the students’ sentiment was usually different.

“When you really get off the media, you realize how many quality things you can do.”

“I interacted with my parents more than usual.”

“This is one of the best days [my friends and I have spent together]. I was able to really see them, without any distractions, and we were able to revert to simple pleasures.”

Dr. Rich touched upon a few other problems, pointing out media is too often used as a distraction from boredom. But without boredom, creativity is stunted, and the “template of the self” isn’t built as strong; instead, individuals fill their minds with other people’s information and designs rather than letting their minds wander and create for themselves. He quoted Albert Einstein, who once said he discovered the theory of relativity because: “I was bored.”

Instead of seeking to lose one’s self in technology, Rich suggested developing the “Killer Be’s.” Be balanced. Be mindful. Be present. For parents, he suggested determining whether a child really needs a smart phone when there is a need for them to be connected, or if a flip phone serves sufficiently. He also recommended the child remove all technology (move it to another room) when it’s time to do homework, because research shows that even a turned-off phone in the same room is a distraction.

During the Harvard session, some parents, lamenting the efficacy of looking to families to teach self-discipline, questioned whether government should step in and regulate solutions, but Rich wasn’t optimistic. “There’s a stalemate between freedom of expression and the health of kids. It’s hard to legislate. Will rules even be enforceable?”

What needs to take place now, he stressed, is for parents to teach, to help kids understand consequences, to be good role models. (I’m certainly lacking in that category, as I too often sleep with my phone nearby, using it as an alarm clock, but finding myself in the middle of the night regularly checking headlines or the latest St. Louis Blues or Cardinals score, which often leads to email, then a troubled mind and troubled sleep. “Move it out of the bedroom, at least an hour before wanting to fall asleep,” Rich said.)

He later added, “If you want to do something really healthy, have family meals together. Get outside. Exercise. Sleep.” Those are more important and will make you feel better than anything you can do on the phone.

As for the kids: same for the adults.

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian. He was co-president of the Leadership & Ethics Forum as a student at Harvard Business School in 1999.