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Childhood Rewired

Phones and social media may be a key factor leading to the
rapid increase in mental health issues troubling younger generations.
A new book outlines the connections and suggests ways to alleviate the crisis

For many who grew up in the latter part of the 20th century, thinking back on childhood conjures up memories of summer days spent on residential streets that seemed to hum with the simplicity of youth. Playing in the local parking lot or park held the promise of an exhilarating adventure waiting to unfold. In every secret cave, pretend family, or theatrically performed play war, stories and worlds out of bounds for adults were created through the force of imagination. Sidewalks were transformed into chalky canvasses of vibrant hopscotch patterns and multi-coloured mazes, and every square or corner was a potential stage for groups of friends gathering for an impromptu game of hide-and-seek or a poorly managed lemonade stand. Childhood was a time of climbs, skips, and hops and an occasional bruise or skin abrasion – of wild, unsupervised play entailing risks and rewards, and a sense of unlimited possibilities.

This kind of childhood experience may not have disappeared, but it has become rarer in today’s world. Admittedly, the reminiscing of older generations has a way of romanticising the past, but the so-called ‘decline of playtime’ is a phenomenon observed across the developed world. The amount of time children spend playing with each other is decreasing, and when they do play, it tends to be more supervised, more structured, and less physical than in the past. One study from Save the Children UK noted that only one in four children play regularly on their street compared to three quarters of their grandparents’ generation. A similar study, this one from Aarhus University, showed a similar trend and noted that parents’ worry about their child’s wellbeing seemed correlated with how much they tend to play.

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Some researchers are seeing connections between this lack of ‘unstructure’ in children’s lives and the wide range of mental illnesses that plague the youth today. Among them are Zach Rausch, Associate Research Scientist at NYU Stern School of Business. Rausch is the lead researcher for the new book Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, which outlines the connections between technology – smartphones especially – and declining adolescent mental health. We spoke to Rausch ahead of the book release to hear more about what he has learned.

He begins his explanation not with technology, but at a more fundamental level: human evolution. To understand the destructive social effects that technology can have, he asks us to consider the aspects of our biology that have shaped us into the communal creatures we are today. Specifically, Rausch points to a set of evolutionary facts that help explain why childhood is such a crucial time in human development.

“Childhood spans roughly 10 years, and it’s a time that’s essential for social and communal learning,” he explains.

This, to Rausch, is critical to understanding the disruptive effects disturbances to development during those important years can have. Childhood is the time when we learn to adapt and grow to become a part of the world, and a key motivation for learning is the desire to play, Rausch says. Play is the foundation of childhood and therefore the foundation of learning and growth.

“For millennia we have had a specific kind of childhood which is mostly outdoors,” Rausch explains. “This play has been mostly with other people of mixed age groups, and often unsupervised by adults. It’s embodied, physical, synchronous, and interactive. And this kind of play is extremely nutritious and incredibly important for a child’s development – physically, mentally, socially, and emotionally.”

For Rausch, the importance of play in childhood development is key to explaining the current youth wellbeing crisis. It’s a phenomenon which has been underway for a while, but which started drawing headlines during the Covid-19 pandemic as cases of anxiety and depression shot up across the world. In 2021, a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that a staggering 22% of US high school students had seriously considered attempting suicide. Here, as with most youth mental health research, girls were shown to be most disposed with a 58% increase compared to just a decade earlier.

Although it may have manifested severely during the pandemic, the roots of the mental health crisis date back further. Some, like psychology professor Peter Gray, point to the post WWII period and the impacts of the change in schooling over the years, including the rise of homework, testing, and more structured activities.

Rausch likewise points to this period as a starting point, yet puts a much greater emphasis on a more recent turn of events, beginning around 2010, when we allowed a handful of tech companies to conduct a massive, global experiment transforming childhood into something that’s largely played out in digital social worlds.

Social media giants such as Meta are increasingly scrutinised for their addictive design features, for negligently avoiding measures to protect their youngest users from harmful content, and for their profit-hungry pursuit of engagement. In what’s sometimes referred to as the ‘techlash’, politicians and the public have begun demanding a greater degree of accountability on the part of the tech giants. The influence these platforms have on mental health is wide-ranging, as seen in January 2024, when Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg stood up during a congressional hearing and apologised to an attending group of parents of 60 teenagers who tragically lost their lives following sexual exploitation or harassment via social media.

Rausch argues that social media is also to blame for mingling with childhood development during the period when we rely so heavily on play in becoming resilient and thriving adults. 2010 is a key year for Rausch because it was around that time that we gave social media and smartphones to the youngest generation, moving childhood social life from what Rausch calls ‘play-based childhood’ to one that is ‘phone-based’. Yet the period leading up to the 2010s, Rausch explains, was also significant for how blind collective society was to the potential pitfalls of social technology.

“The 90s and early 2000s was an era of incredible techno-optimism, a period
where democracies were thriving, autocracies were collapsing, and we had the rise of social media leading to the Arab Spring,” he says. “We had all these indicators that the technological world was only going to bring more freedom and more connection, and so the idea that we can supplement childhood with this new, exciting technology and that this is going to be kind of a net positive was very understandable at the time.”

It was on the backend of this optimistic fervour that smartphones were introduced and readily accepted, with little consideration of their potential negative impact on the youth. Today it’s looking harder than ever for parents to reclaim play in the name of their children’s wellbeing, Rausch recognises, because restricting your child from online screen time is tough, as no child wants to be the only one who is not on Instagram or does not have a phone.

“No parent wants to see their child feeling disconnected and alone, yet if you do send your kids out to play there is often no one to play with. In the United States, someone might even call the police because they think you are neglecting your child,” he says.

Stuck in a collective trap, any action to turn things around will have to be taken in a coordinated manner. Banning the use of phones and screen technologies in schools and after-school activities has started to become more commonplace, with UNESCO now recommending that schools worldwide ban smartphones completely in classrooms. Several countries, including France and the Netherlands, have already followed these guidelines – and wisely so, if you ask Rausch.



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The classroom is one thing, but what about children’s social lives outside school? How can the negative effect of technology on this crucial aspect of childhood development be mitigated?

It’s a difficult challenge, but perhaps not an impossible one to solve. The book presents a series of concrete conditions and norms that could be introduced to help build a 21st-century version of the play-based childhood. These steps include no smartphones until age 14 and delaying use of social media until age 16. Rausch also suggests keeping phones completely out of schools (rather than just the classroom), which would help solve the collective-action-problem by creating a seven- or eight-hour period of device-free social interaction each day. According to Rausch, this would do much to alleviate the anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses endemic in younger generations.

“The research is quite strong, pointing to the smoking gun of digital technology and the lack of in-person social interaction and play,” he says.

Rausch applies the risk analyst Nassim Taleb’s concept of anti-fragility to the role of unsupervised, risky play in learning and building the internal competencies and strengths as well as the self-efficacy needed to handle the unexpected curveballs that life throws at us. Taleb defines three kinds of systems in the world. Some systems are fragile, such as a wine glass that will shatter if you drop or put stress on it. Other systems are robust, such as a plastic cup which you can drop without it breaking. It is not good for it, but it will be fine. Finally, we have systems that are anti-fragile like the muscles in our body. If we don’t stress them, they will atrophy and eventually perish. Anti-fragile systems require some degree of disorder and stress to grow and mature. The same applies to children’s development, Rausch argues.

“Children and children’s brains are anti-fragile to the physical world they evolved for, not the new hyper-viral virtual world they have been thrown into. Digital literacy can be helpful, but what is more important is that we build up and support the anti-fragile nature of ours.”

Overprotecting parents and social media, Rausch argues, do the opposite, in that these things are like experience blockers; they lead to children being shielded from the core experiences they need to become resilient and happy adolescents. These experiences, crucially, should be obtained before diving head-long into a virtual world that isn’t designed with their best interests in mind.

Reaching the end of our conversation, the focus turns toward the future. Phones, after all, will not be the endpoint of technological evolution, and the pressure of being a child and teenager is unlikely going to ease in the years and decades to come.

When asked what he sees as the most important trait to foster in children, Rausch states that he sees “cognitive flexibility” as crucial, adding that “Playing is the most important way to build that cognitive flexibility at an early age.”

Play and education go hand in hand, Rausch concludes. And open-ended teaching – where the end result is not known beforehand – creates a playful space for imagination and creativity fit for a future that holds no absolute truth or definitive answers.

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