The digital media experiment is ruining our children's lives. We owe it to them to stop.

·5 min read

This column is part of an ongoing series by USA TODAY Opinion exploring the mental health crisis facing Americans.

Two decades ago, I got divorced, leaving two little children without an intact family. While the whole process was hard for me, it was harder on my kids.

The science backs that up. Kids of divorce have more trouble in school, display disruptive behavior and suffer depressed mood. My children certainly had their challenges. That's one reason I appreciate Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy's effort to call attention to our children's mental health crisis.

The mental health of children was bad before the coronavirus hit us. In a decade, suicide rates among young people had shot up more than 50%. After pandemic isolation, school closures and quarantines set in, mental health got worse and suicide became even more common, especially for teen girls.

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The question that haunts parents of children who suffer from mental health problems, whether it is suicide or something less devastating, is "Who is to blame?" In my case, I knew it was, at least in part, me. When my children needed me, I wasn't at home with them.

In previous decades, baby boomers and my generation, Generation X, conducted a social experiment on our children as we divorced in record numbers. It wasn't until the damage was undeniable that divorce rates started to go down, as a new generation knew from personal experience the cost of our decisions.

Adults need to face what we've done

As the fallout of my choices continues to affect my children, there isn't a single day that goes by when I don't think about my culpability for their pain. That's hard. Facing what we're doing to our kids should be hard for all of us.

Unfortunately, Murthy's timely advisory falls short on this score. It offers this as the reason for our crisis: "Scientists have proposed various hypotheses to explain these trends. While some believe that the trends in reporting of mental health challenges are partly due to young people becoming more willing to openly discuss mental health concerns ... increasing academic pressure, limited access to mental health care, health risk behaviors such as alcohol and drug use, and broader stressors such as the 2008 financial crisis, rising income inequality, racism, gun violence, and climate change."

That's debatable at best.

Murthy's advisory mentions one subject that isn't in the same category. "Researchers point to the growing use of digital media," the report suggests as one potential cause of the decline in mental health.

Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy met with USA TODAY's Editorial Board to discuss the mental health crisis facing American children.
Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy met with USA TODAY's Editorial Board to discuss the mental health crisis facing American children.

Murthy put it more colorfully, in an interview with USA TODAY's Editorial Board: "In some ways we are conducting a national experiment on our children through social media."

That's true, but Murthy's report posits it is just one hypothesis among many.

Media use has exploded

The problem is broader than social media. We're now conducting three overlapping experiments at once.

Bottomless media: In the past, it was possible to get to the end of what entertainment was available to you each night. Since the advent of cable, and now with streaming services and other online media, that's changed. Even figuring out all the entertainment options available to you is a full-time job. Whether it is YouTube, Netflix or Apple TV, entertainment today is limitless.

This does two things. As we fall into self-selected niches, it strips away common entertainment experiences that once served as points of cultural unity. And it takes away time from real world interaction and social connection.

Ubiquitous media: We carry with us access to constantly updated news and entertainment tempting us back into a solitary world when we're at school, in a park or on a walk.

Social media: Hundreds of millions of Americans are connected by social media, whether it is Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or TikTok. We're recreating the way we interact, cutting time away from real world relationships, and substituting a shallower, likes-based society with its own problems of bullying, digital jealousy and disinformation.

All three trends began to reach wide cultural adoption in the early 2010s, reaching virtually all Americans through one of the three innovations. YouTube launched in 2005. Facebook opened to any user with an email address older than 13 in 2006. Netflix started streaming and the Apple iPhone launched in 2007. Google debuted its first smartphone in 2008. Instagram opened to the public in 2010.

All along the way, kids began growing up in a new way, in an unavoidable digital society. Today, kids have to drag their parents away from their cellphones. I've been guilty of this, too.

And as these three media innovations became part of everyday life, that's when things changed for kids. And it's what is driving our young people over the edge.

The need to get a grip on it couldn't be more urgent. We all need to hold ourselves accountable for our role in adopting and spreading this new way of life without thinking through what it means for kids.

It will be hard, but we owe it to them.

David Mastio is an opinion writer for USA TODAY. Follow him on Twitter @DavidMastio.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Social media turns kids into test subjects for 'national experiment'

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