Adolescent mental health is a growing concern. A Pediatrics study published in November 2016 indicates an increase in major depression episodes reported for youth ages 12-20 from 8.7 percent in 2005 to 11.3 percent in 2014. This study concludes that the prevalence of teen depression is trending upwards in recent years and is a growing public health concern. There are a number of factors that contribute to depression, including genetic disposition (February 2016 Social Psychiatry, Psychiatric Epidemiology report). While the advent of social media and mobile devices certainly play a role in shaping perspectives of young hearts and minds, I nevertheless caution parents not to agree that technology is the problem. It is a part of our daily life, and cyber connectivity is the reality we and our youth must learn to navigate in healthy ways as a family.

Parenting the free will of our children who have access to mobile connectivity is unchartered territory. And children need parents to be the example of self-discipline in this regard. Being mindful of where and how you give your attention is your power. This is learned behavior, especially with mobile devices. So let us consider this possibility: that to blame the technology is to surrender the power of self-determination inherent in parents and youth to overcome adversity and regulate the use of apps and devices.

Below are the top three reasons why I conclude that smartphones are not to blame for upticks in teen loneliness and depression.

  • The social media apps and technology have no power to overwhelm youth unless families choose to use them without limits
  • Every individual has a spirit of power and love and sound mind which means we can all learn to regulate the use of apps and devices, and limit use so as to mitigate the impact of undue influences (anxiety, bullying, addiction and sexual exploitation)
  • On-line experiences can have an isolating and oppressive impact on the psyche and can shape a hopeless perspective when the cyber-social realm becomes a single point of reference for life

The truth is that we and our children are equipped to regulate the use of technology in ways that open up communication to impart wisdom and build trust in relationships at home and in the community. And trust is the currency for modern youth. They value it above all things as they get a lot of fear and fakery in their social network.

So the big question then for the modern parent is this: How do you cultivate trust with a tech-savvy child who can so easily keep secret risky thoughts and actions they are harboring in their life journey?

We will return to this thought later.

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First let’s take a peek at some of the observations about how modern youth obsessed with smartphones are experiencing isolation and depression in a recent Atlantic article by author Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University. She divulges some of the conclusions she has formed about the adverse impact social media has on youth, to be elaborated in her new book, iGen, scheduled for release soon. In short, upon review of the take-aways from her article one might conclude that the smartphones have become the new drug that has created a generation of youth who are co-dependent on parents and opting to stay at home rather than socialize with peers face-to-face. And by the same token Twenge finds this generation of teens are the safest physically because they are not getting driver’s licenses, and are less likely to experiment with drugs and sexual exploits (note: this finding contradicts ethnographic data I have encountered in my fieldwork and research, and as documented in JoAnn Sales’ book, American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teens).

Celebrated parenting guru, Dr. Madeline Levine, author of The Price of Privilege, and Teach Your Children Well, suggests that that our youth are anxious and depressed because the parents are anxious about the future of their children and are seeking control over things that belong to the child – such as decisions and judgments about college and careers. This finding is also echoed by Dr. Chap Clark, in his book, Hurt 2.0: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers. He concludes that this generation of teens are feeling abandoned by the social institutions that hyper-focus on individual achievement and do not afford adolescents genuine experiences to explore their identity and develop and grow into adulthood with a sense of belonging. They are simply trying to please people and accommodate sets of expectations that are not born from their personal inquiries, talents and passions. They are compliant and have not had an opportunity to cultivate a sense of community in their own right – to belong to something greater that they helped build. This observation coincides with Twenge’s finding that iGen teens are more likely to stay at home and focus on studies and experience social life via SnapChat streaks and Instagram posts, rather than to get outside and be social face-to-face. All these ethnographic portraits point to a failed cultural nurturing system that fosters isolation with devices as a norm, and hence we are witnessing the emergence of perhaps one of the loneliest generation of teens.

Fresh Start Video: Access URL here (enter password: G3tSt@rted)

That said, I am confident that the technology is not the issue. Rather technology is revealing the universal vulnerability of our humanity that cannot be fulfilled by devices and superficial gestures of connectedness (such as simply living under the same roof and attending the same school or complying with an education and career plan that is not your own). With every month that passes as daily headlines about teens and social media across the globe stream into my mailbox, I am more convinced that the issue for youth is less about the technology, and more about how we are modeling adulthood in our use of devices and apps, and then communicating to impart wisdom about what is happening in our own and our children’s lives on and off-line.

If we are fearfully trying to arrange for the safety, happiness and success of our children, it is not possible to impart wisdom because our desires to be in control communicate a lack of confidence in the child, which thwarts open dialogue. In this regard, the parent-child bond has never been more important.

Building trust is a must

Overdependence on the device as a single point of reference for life is the vulnerability and the counter measure is to regulate use of technology to be purpose-driven. This takes discipline which must be communicated as a civics lesson about freedom and developed as an integral part of your family culture.

Parents of the smartphone generation have an inherent capacity to impart this wisdom thought about liberty that makes a free society possible and is the great equalizer of all generations, genders and creeds: that every human being has God-given intelligent life and free will, and this is power to choose your own thoughts and actions in response to life events that can never be taken, but is easily surrendered. Because a handful of people acted upon this one mustard seed of faith, an atheist has the right to declare “there is no God!” in the public square. So what you choose to believe about the inalienable origin and limits of your personal power matters today more than ever for people of all creeds and social backgrounds. The old adage, “when you stand for nothing, you fall for anything” has never been truer.

To learn more about creating a family culture that fosters open communication, and builds trust and equips your child to be resilient in the network and in the flesh, go to: Fresh Start.

To receive a list of resources for mental and behavioral health, contact Joanna

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About:  We are a non-profit education center founded in Roseville, CA to strengthen the parent-child bond in a hyper-connected world. Our mission is to restore families with the mustard seed of faith that declares liberty already belongs to the soul because one God, the Creator of all humanity, grants every human being intelligence and free will to choose what to believe, and that is power that can never be taken, but is easily surrendered to the bully, the drug or the device. To that end, ten percent of all proceeds are donated to prison ministries. Your donations are greatly appreciated. (Donations are payable to Banana Moments Foundation).

Joanna Jullien, Founder & CEO of Core Connectivity
Photo by: Victoria Hatch

Joanna Jullien is an author, educator and consultant on strengthening the parent-child relationship in a cyber-powered world. She is a former technology executive trained in behavioral science at U.C. Berkeley, a mother of two grown sons, and an author of books for practical guidance on parenting, growing up and family life in the network culture. As a family and technology culture advisor, Joanna has appeared on 103.9FM The Fish, 710AM Keeping Faith in America, 1380AM The Answer, and Examiner.com.