We must fight digital addiction in kids like drunk driving

POLITICS: We must fight digital addiction in kids like drunk driving

American kids are experiencing an unprecedented mental health crisis that is driven, in large part, by how much of their day is spent online.

The numbers are horrifying: rates of anxiety and depression among young people have risen by 50% in recent years, and teen suicide is up 29% over the past decade.

Today, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for children ages 10-14 years old, killing more than all cancers combined. 

Not only do 95% of teens use social media, but a third of them report using it “almost constantly,” the Pew Research Center found. Tatyana Gladskih – stock.adobe.com

The current national debate over a potential TikTok ban has drawn attention to the way that social media, and smartphones dominate our children’s lives.

Not only do a whopping 95% of teens use social media, but Pew Research Center found that a third of them report using it “almost constantly.”

These platforms expose them to excessive violence, extremism, bullying and impossible beauty standards that lay the groundwork for depression, anxiety, eating disorders and, yes, even suicidal ideation. 

Clearly, profits are more important to social media companies than our kids’ well-being.

The more time anyone spends scrolling, the more money these companies make, and they have been fighting tooth and nail to keep it that way. 

As a journalist, media ecologist, and most importantly, as a mom, I believe it’s time for a grassroots movement of parents ready to step up and fight back against this crisis.

That’s why I founded Mothers Against Media Addiction (MAMA), a way for moms, dads and anyone who cares to create a world where real-life experiences are at the heart of a healthy childhood.

At MAMA, our members urge politicians to enact policies that provide the basic online safeguards our kids so desperately need.

At the federal level, that includes the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), which has an astounding 66 bipartisan Senate co-sponsors and would require social media companies to enable the strongest safety settings by default.

Another bill, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA 2.0), would expand online privacy protections to teenagers and limit Big Tech’s ability to reach minors with targeted advertising. 

We also need state lawmakers to take action.

That includes implementing safeguards like the Age Appropriate Design Code (AADC), which prevents companies from collecting and selling children’s data.

Here in New York, the legislature is currently considering two well-crafted bills that similarly address addictive algorithms and data privacy.

In addition to instituting these safeguards, we must get cellphones out of schools — now.

Phones in the classroom distract students from their lessons and displace essential in-person socializing. If we want to set our kids up for success, we must ensure that schools promote face-to-face interactions and physically participatory forms of learning, like handwriting and reading from books.

It’s encouraging that several states are passing or advancing legislation to create phone-free schools. Other states should follow suit. 

Despite the clear dangers of social media, protestors like these in Washington, DC earlier this month were showing their support for the Chinese-owned platform TikTok. Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/Shutterstock
Decades ago, MADD’s group of parents and family members made drunk driving the last thing any teen wanted to do.

Unfortunately, many educators and parents still don’t fully recognize the severe harms of unlimited screen-time. It’s time they did.

We need a national education campaign to help communicate the profound and often unseen role of media and technology in shaping our children’s social, emotional, and academic health.

That’s why MAMA hosts a Virtual Event Series featuring experts who can help light the way out of this crisis.

At MAMA, we model our work after Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Through education, advocacy, and the power of parents’ organizing, MADD changed the way we think about drunk driving and, since 1980, significantly reduced the number of victims.

MAMA is determined to have a similar impact against an equally dangerous drug: the intoxicating, addictive, life-threatening web of online media. 

(L-R) Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) and Rep. Mike Gallagher (D-WI) co-sponsored to ban TikTok. Getty Images

Recently, dozens of MAMA members and allies rallied outside a Meta office in New York to demand that social media companies and lawmakers prioritize our children’s well-being over technology.

At that rally, we were moved by the story of Mary Rodee, an elementary school teacher who lost her 15 year-old son, Riley Basford, to suicide after he was a victim of a sextortion scheme on Facebook.

Mary’s heartbreaking loss is what fuels our work. 

Addictive algorithms are powerful, and tech companies have deep pockets on top of influential connections.

But, in the end, nothing — and no amount of money in the world — can compete with the love of a parent for a child.

Together, we should ensure our kids live in a world where technology serves humanity — not the other way around.

Julie Scelfo is the founder and mom-in-chief of Mothers Against Media Addiction (MAMA).

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