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On Kids and Screens, or Why I Feel Like The Catcher in the Rye

Kids On Phones

While flying last week, I noticed the kids around me. Unless they were a baby, every single one of them stared at a screen. No one read a book or looked out a window. Parents were also on phones, though I did see some lift their heads to say things to their kids. I sat next to a kid who kept looking toward his family on the other side of the aisle and then back to the game on his phone. I couldn’t help myself, twice when I saw something cool out the window—an island for instance— I called his attention to it. I didn’t want him to miss out!

And that’s the problem, the kids are missing out. Yet at the same time, they are seeing too much. Think about it. Kids on their screens can google ANYTHING—all the bad news of the world, pornography, cruelty, bullying—you name it, they can see it. It’s too much information for brains that are not mature enough to handle it. Hell, I can’t even handle it half the time. And in my opinion, by relying on the screen for entertainment kids can develop ADHD.

Photo by McKaela Taylor on Unsplash

Loss of Innocence

Children lose their innocence viewing the world through a screen. Yet at the same time, we parents supervise their every move. Because of the real threat of creepy people harming our children, kids are much older before they are allowed to be “free range.” Some of them are never allowed to roam freely around the neighborhood. Play dates are supervised, sports and activities are supervised, neighborhood pick-up games are unheard of (for those who don’t know, a pick-up game is a game organized by kids with no adults around). There are zero-tolerance policies in schools, so kids never learn to defend themselves against other kids. As a result, I believe our kids grow up knowing too much that’s bad about the world, and have minimal confidence in their own abilities to survive, let alone thrive, in the world they see.

The “Best Life” Illusion

One of the most prevalent dangers onscreen is the social-media illusion of “perfect” people living their “best life.” Influencers on TikTok, Instagram, etc. are stereotypically beautiful and project an image of being incredibly happy and confident all the time. Ladies, remember how in our youth we were warned that the models we saw in magazines had been air-brushed, and we shouldn’t compare ourselves to them? This is 100Xs worse. Young people who have smart phones are inundated with false images nearly every time they look at a social-media app. And because of their obsession with taking selfies and photographing each waking moment, you get young people possessed with the idea that they must try and look “perfect” at all times. They can’t of course, and this can lead to depression and anxiety.

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On-line Gaming

Many kids/teens/young adults get caught up in gaming. It gives them the illusion of living an exciting life; but in reality they are imprisoned behind the walls of their game. People who game for hours on end are often depressed or socially anxious, they self-medicate by gaming.

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Am I Overreacting?

Perhaps some of you think I am overreacting about kids and screens. I assure you I am not. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) and Children’s Hospital Association have declared a national emergency in children’s mental health, made much worse by Covid-19 and public-health authorities reaction to it.

But poor mental-health conditions in young people were rising before Covid hit.

One study, conducted by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), found that between 2016 and 2020, the number of children ages 3-17 years diagnosed with anxiety grew by 29 percent and those with depression by 27 percent. And, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, “An estimated 4.1 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 in the United States had at least one major depressive episode. This number represented 17.0% of the U.S. population aged 12 to 17.”

Blame It On The iPhone

Much of this rise in youth depression and anxiety has to do with the invention of the iPhone in 2007. By 2012, a majority of Americans owned a smart phone, and two-thirds of teens owned one by 2015. There’s a good article about that here.

Overuse of a smart phone can lead to:

  • “compare and despair” for teenagers, where they feel their looks, body, and confidence will never measure up to the filtered-photos they see onscreen.
  • a feeling that the world is shit and there’s nothing they can do about it, as well as a feeling that they are somehow responsible for the mess they see.
  • parents who neglect their children. So often I see parents talking on the phone while they push their babies in strollers, or I’ll see parents distracted by the phone instead of playing with their kids at the park. Children want attention: “Look at me Mommy! Watch me Daddy!” but if they continually have to compete with their parent’s phone for attention they will give up. What do you think that does to their self-esteem? Children need eye contact, touch, and affection from their parents. Too many children lose that to a parent’s smart phone.
Photo by Vitolda Klein on Unsplash

An Epidemic

Every teenager and young adult I know has been, or currently is, suffering from anxiety or depression. It is an epidemic. Young people are seriously hurting. Even mine have suffered, and we restricted their use of the screen. But not enough! My  daughter wishes I had not given-in to her in middle school. She said it would have been much better if I’d made her wait to have a phone till she was 16.

Of course there are culprits beyond the screen: schools teaching subjects to kids before they are mature enough (my daughter’s 6th grade teacher showed the kids a graphic film about “untouchable” women in India who’d had their hands cut off); high schools and colleges pushing teens to volunteer, because of course it’s up to them to save the world; fearful adults making kids feel responsible for “spreading” covid. I could go on, but I won’t.

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What are some solutions? Here are my ideas:

• Don’t give your child a smart phone. Give them a phone that only texts and makes phone calls, one with a full keyboard. Is there even a phone like that?
• Add a warning label to smart phones: “Warning, smart phones can cause depression and anxiety in young people.”
• Model good behavior – put your phone down when you are around your kids!
• If you are traveling with kids give them books to read. Include sticker books, activity books, and comic books. Listen to an audio book as a family.
• If you are waiting somewhere and your child is bored, don’t hand them a phone. Carry a book and read it to your child. If you don’t have a book, play with them, talk to them, give them drawing paper. In other words – PARENT.
• If they must have a phone – limit their screen time. And remember that removing apps from their phone is not enough. Kids can still log in through the browser.
• Don’t allow screens in the bedroom.
• If kids have to do homework through the internet, put the screen in a common room so they can be supervised.

Widen The Conversation

I hope my blog, and other media on this subject (watch an excellent documentary called The Social Dilemma, ) widens the conversation. Our kids need help. They are not resilient. And I don’t see parents of young kids getting the message. They readily hand phones out to their kids. They use them to babysit, entertain, and even “educate.” They give them phones so they won’t feel left out among their peers. But I have watched these kids grow up. I listen to them and talk with them and they are suffering. It’s too much information at too young an age.

I hope parents will soon realize this and stop the madness. Otherwise, I will continue to feel like the Catcher in the Rye, trying to gather up children before they run off the cliff.

photo by Karen Gough


For a lighthearted look at encouraging your teen to go outside, check out this video by filmmaker Kate Gough (full disclosure, we are related).



  1. Andrew Andrew

    Great article! Under Solutions, there is a phone that just calls & texts, with no internet: Gabb phone,

    • KarenGough KarenGough

      Thank you for letting us know about the Gabb phone, Andrew! 😊

  2. Greg Pfister Greg Pfister

    Really enjoyed the article, and agree completely. I’ll share with you a cute story that my wife reminded me of. Our 6 year granddaughter was flying to Florida with her aunt this past February to meet us for a week of fun in the sun. On the flight our granddaughter, Finley, sat in a row with two other ladies and introduced herself. She was excited to be on the plane. One lady, Debbie, and Finley struck up a conversation for the two+ hour trip. Finley enjoys people and a talker, no phone or tablet. The other lady in the row spent the flight in her tablet. As they were deplaning, Finley asked the ladies if she could have a hug. Debbie said sure and that she had the best flight talking with her. When Finley hugged the other lady, Finley let her know that she missed out on all the fun!

    • KarenGough KarenGough

      Finley sounds like a wonderful little girl!😁 Thanks for sharing that story, made me smile.

  3. Rich M Rich M

    Thoughtful piece Karen that is all true and all so sad to see. Even worse in many regards is this same screen time spreading fake news, conspiracy theories and the like amongst adults. This seems like an unstoppable train which sadly young people may be open too just because screen time is engrained in their behavior as you wrote. I do hope there is a way to stop or slowdown that train. Best regards

    • KarenGough KarenGough

      Thanks Rich. You bring up a good point, it’s hard to know what to believe these days, but I’d rather have the choice to sort out the news myself then have it be censored as “fake.” We all need to check the sources and possible motivations behind the “news” we read onscreen.
      Thanks for commenting!

  4. Jeannine Thompson Jeannine Thompson

    Thank you for providing the link to “Go Outside” by Kate Gough. She truly captured the joy of feeling the sunshine on your face in contrast to the confines of screen time. Great blog post too!

    • KarenGough KarenGough

      You’re welcome! I think it’s a great video too, of course I’m biased. 😉

  5. Chris Gough Chris Gough

    Great blog! I take issue where you make statements like “screen time gives kids adhd” and don’t provide any evidence, as it’s a medical diagnosis and there’s definitely studies out there that have done actual analysis to show if there’s a correlation OR causation effect. The points about parenting being adversely affected by excess phone usage, however, I completely agree with. I think the solutions you suggest make sense, and although they seem harsh in a technology-inundated society, the problems they solve are equally prevalent, and damaging.

    • KarenGough KarenGough

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments! You’re right, I did not reference a study for my ADHD claim, I just relied on the behavior I’ve witnessed. It’s definitely my opinion and not a scientific fact. Thanks for pointing that out and commenting.

  6. Anonymous Anonymous

    Great article! However I think there should be warnings on social media apps about them leading to depression and anxiety, not necessarily smartphones.

    • KarenGough KarenGough

      That’s a good point, but I see a problem with browsers and search engines being available to kids, as well as overuse of the camera for selfies.

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