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Are Smartphones Worse Than Absent Fathers?

A new study found that adolescents with major depression jumped by 52 percent from 2005 to 2017. Why?

In that article, from USA Today, a professor from San Diego State named Jean Twenge says that it’s “cultural trends.” So too does Ian Gotlib of Stanford, though he specifically blames “social media.”

Yes, kids have smartphones today and just a few years ago, they didn’t. Yes, social media has hit us out of nowhere. And yes, numerous studies have specifically hit on social media as a causative factor in depression.

But I’m not so sure.

It’s not that I doubt the toxicity of social media – it is undeniable. Nor do I doubt that smartphones have played a role.

What if, however, the technology was more an accessory to the problem than the root cause? What if there was a deeper issue at play?

Here’s a thought. Where are the parents? Specifically, where are the fathers?

39 percent of US kids in grades 1-12 don’t have their fathers in their lives.

39 percent! And the number is growing.

It’s not just the US. The United Kingdom also has an epidemic of fatherless homes. There, scientists have discovered that:

“Growing up without a father could permanently alter the structure of the brain and produce children who are more aggressive and angry…”

Consider the “social media bullies” phenomenon that we often see, and how some people are so vicious on social media that they drive others to self-harm. Is it so radical to suggest that some of those social media bullies, just as real-life bullies, might not have fathers involved in their lives?

And then this in Psychology Today, from Dr. Edward Kruk:

“According to the 2007 UNICEF report on the well-being of children in economically advanced nations, children in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. rank extremely low in regard to social and emotional well-being in particular. Many theories have been advanced to explain the poor state of our nations’ children: child poverty, race and social class. A factor that has been largely ignored, however, particularly among child and family policymakers, is the prevalence and devastating effects of father absence in children’s lives.”

Indeed. What has happened to men in the Western world?

Common sense also dictates this basic idea: involved fathers, heck involved parents, ought to be regulating their children’s exposure to smartphones, social media, and the internet. Maybe kids don’t want to hear that, but so what. We are in an era of child predators lurking online, always-on pornography, extremely unrealistic social media comparison, and an epidemic of online shaming and bullying.

And yet, do you know how many elementary school kids are running around with smartphones?

One of my best friends’ youngest just entered middle school. Last year, when he was in 5th grade, the kids in his class were passing around smartphones looking at sex tapes. The school apparently did nothing. His parents, my friends, only found out because he was raised in a good home with an open line of communication. His parents are exemplars of the Christian life. But I can promise you most of those kids did not tell their parents.

I’m more likely to say that parents, not these tools that are being abused, are the problem. There are plenty of well-grounded kids whose parents are keeping an eye on things who don’t get into trouble with social media.

Indeed, there will likely come a time when different things are blamed for the problems of youth. In the past, it was video games, arcades, drinking, drugs, hippie culture, rock music, jukeboxes, and the jitterbug. Social media in some form probably isn’t going away. But let’s be honest, technology is going to probably get “worse” from the perspective of human connection.

New things will attack the innocence of childhood.

The commonality in all eras and through all social ills is parenting. Whether it’s there, or whether it isn’t.

And, perhaps especially, whether fathers are.

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