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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The internet is a wasteland, so give kids better places to go

A teenager spends time on the TikTok app on her phone at a mall in Miami, March 15, 2024. We need to give kids better places to go than online, writes the New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg. (Damon Winter/The New York Times)

By Michelle Goldberg

In January, I had the odd experience of nodding along with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who can usually be relied on to be wrong, as he berated supervillain Mark Zuckerberg, head of Facebook’s parent company, Meta, about the effect its products have on kids. “You have blood on your hands,” Graham said.

That evening, I moderated a panel on social media regulation whose participants included New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, a progressive crusader and perhaps Donald Trump’s single most effective antagonist. Her position wasn’t that different from that of Graham. There is a correlation, she pointed out, between the proliferation of addictive social media algorithms and the collapse of young people’s mental health, including rising rates of depression, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

“And I’ve seen that for myself,” she said, describing helping the family of a young girl find a scarce psychiatric bed during the pandemic. “She talked to me a lot about social media.”

Because alarm over what social media is doing to kids is broad and bipartisan, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt is pushing on an open door with his important new book, “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness.” The shift in kids’ energy and attention from the physical world to the virtual one, Haidt shows, has been catastrophic, especially for girls.

Female adolescence was nightmarish enough before smartphones, but apps like Instagram and TikTok have put popularity contests and unrealistic beauty standards into hyperdrive. (Boys, by contrast, have more problems linked to overuse of video games and porn.) The studies Haidt cites — as well as the ones he debunks — should put to bed the notion that concern over kids and phones is just a modern moral panic akin to previous generations’ hand-wringing over radio, comic books and television.

But I suspect that many readers won’t need convincing. The question in our politics is less whether these ubiquitous new technologies are causing widespread psychological damage than what can be done about it.

So far, the answer has been not much. The federal Kids Online Safety Act, which was recently revised to allay at least some concerns about censorship, has the votes to pass the Senate but hasn’t even been introduced in the House. In the absence of federal action, both red and blue states have tried to enact their own laws to safeguard kids online, but many have been enjoined by courts for running afoul of the First Amendment. Lawmakers in New York are working on a bill that tries to rein in predatory social media apps while respecting free speech; it targets the algorithms that social media companies use to serve kids ever more extreme content, keeping them glued to their phones. But while the law seems likely to pass, no one knows whether courts will uphold it.

There are, however, small but potentially significant steps local governments can take right now to get kids to spend less time online, steps that raise no constitutional issues. Phone-free schools are an obvious start, although, in a perverse American twist, some parents object to them because they want to be able to reach their kids if there’s a mass shooting. More than that, we need a lot more places — parks, food courts, movie theaters, even video arcades — where kids can interact in person.

In “The Anxious Generation,” Haidt argues that while kids are underprotected on the internet, they’re overprotected in the real world, and that these two trends work in tandem. For a whole host of reasons — parental fear, overzealous child welfare departments, car-centric city planning — kids generally have a lot less freedom and independence than their parents did. Sitting at home in front of screens may keep them safe from certain physical harms, but it leaves them more vulnerable to psychological ones.

Reading Haidt’s book, I kept thinking of a park in Paris’ Les Halles district where adults aren’t allowed, and how much easier it would be to keep kids off the internet if there were similar parks scattered around American cities and towns. I would much rather have my own children, who are 9 and 11, roaming the neighborhood than spending hours interacting with friends remotely on apps like Roblox.

But it’s hard to make them go outside when there are no other kids around. One of my favorite days of the year is my Brooklyn neighborhood’s block party, when the street is closed to traffic and the kids play in packs, most ignored by their tipsy parents. It demonstrates how the right physical environment can encourage offscreen socializing.

As I was finishing “The Anxious Generation,” a book that partly overlaps with it arrived in the mail: “Family Unfriendly: How Our Culture Made Raising Kids Much Harder Than It Needs to Be.” The author, Timothy P. Carney, is a conservative Catholic father of six who wants to encourage other people to have lots of kids. He and I agree about very little, but we’re in complete accord about the need for communities to be “kid-walkable and kid-bikeable” so that children will have more real-world autonomy. Carney cites a 2023 paper from The Journal of Pediatrics concluding that a “primary cause of the rise in mental disorders is a decline over decades in opportunities for children and teens to play, roam and engage in other activities independent of direct oversight and control by adults.”

If we want to start getting kids offline, we need to give them better places to go instead.

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