EAST GREENWICH—In a series of forums over recent weeks, the United Methodist Church hosted screenings of the documentary “Screenagers” to foster dialogue about how to best encourage healthy screen use among teenagers and prevent the myriad of health and social problems associated with excessive screen time.
“One of the major concerns that have been presented to young people and their educators over the last decade is the proliferation of technology amongst teens and what technology’s role is or should be in our lives,” said director of the town drug program Bob Houghtaling, who was involved with the events. “When you see some of the unbelievably jingoistic political stuff online, or the incredibly harmful bullying that is happening amongst teens, it is a real concern.”
“My challenge is educating parents about how to best set limits, and how to educate kids to manage their exposure,” Houghtaling continued. “No one is going backward, these devices are here to stay, but we need strategies for teaching appropriate usage and for addressing what this technology’s role is going to be in our culture.”
The role of technology in society has been a hot-button issue, but what makes the ever-growing amount of screen time spent by teenagers so unique and dangerous is the way in which they interact with social media. By reinforcing social acceptance or banishment through “likes” and “dislikes,” many scientists across the nation have begun carrying out research that has thus far demonstrated a troubling link between screen time amongst teenagers and rates of cyberbullying and suicide.
“These are amazing devices and have produced amazing advancements, but how much is too much?” Houghtaling said. “How much is this impacting us or leading to cyber problems with bullying or the inability to cope with various problems, or affecting the need for affirmation by counting likes?”
The trend has been particularly impactful on the development of young women, who tend towards group interactions with regard to issues of praise and blame more than young men do. According to research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Drs. Melissa Mercado, Kristin Holland and Ruth Leemis, suicide attempts among preteen girls nearly tripled between 2009 and 2015, and the terrifying trend has been overwhelmingly linked to social media usage by researchers. It is a trend that has not gone unnoticed in East Greenwich.
“There has been an erosion of interpersonal skills and a rise in the amount of time that kids and adults alike spend on their devices,” Houghtaling said. “Some kids may be spending time going to bed with a cell phone and they’re having a hard time navigating without them and understanding how to regulate their time with them.”
“The East Greenwich police have, for a long time, worked to educate the community about how to be smart online, but the biggest issue is recognizing that these devices are tools and not ends in themselves,” he continued. “As a tool, it is remarkable. But it needs to be used in reliable parameters and have limits, especially for teenagers. And that has been one of the really big problems with this proliferation in cyberbullying.”
Researchers such as Dr. Jonathan Haidt, at NYU’s Stern School of Business, have argued in recent years that the combination of social media platforms that reinforce call-out culture and the proliferation of parenting techniques that do not allow children to take acceptable risks have led to an overly fragile social life among young people. This trend, it is argued, has further led to a culture in which people, particularly young people, are losing the capacity to effectively manage stress and anxiety and are increasingly unaccepting of both views that go against their own as well as being shunned from their own in-groups.
“What we really need to do is create islands of oasis where the youth can develop dialogues and friendships, as well as the skills they need to navigate a social life,” Houghtaling said. “We need to help young people be critical consumers and know what constitutes decent information, to know how to utilize technology without losing their essential human skills.”
“Somewhere down the line these people are going to need to have a social skill,” Houghtaling said. “Whether it’s regarding your family life or if you’re on a sports team or you’re interviewing for a job, there are social dynamics to all of these things and we need to develop those skills amongst the youth of our community. Our culture can sometimes focus on the accumulation of facts rather than the assimilation of those facts into life. We need to act to help address this issue.”
Over the course of the last month, addressing that issue has been precisely what the United Methodist Church has been aiming at, and its documentary viewings and dialogues seem to be taking root in the minds of those who participate. What is left is further rallying the town to better address the mental health concerns and issues of bullying and harassment that come with too much screen time and a lack of real-world social interaction.
“We need to strike a balance,” Houghtaling said. “Aristotle said that man is a social animal and there is research all over about the effects of isolation and the rise of isolated political thought and the hostility of social media. We are still in the adjustment period, but thankfully the United Methodist Church here in town has been speaking to some of these issues and offering some potential solutions.”
“They really did an awesome job and opened up a lot of dialogue,” Houghtaling said of the events. “Going into the day-to-day of relationships, and the need for there to be everyday opportunities for kids to just open up and have dialogue and talk about stressors and articulate their feelings and identify their problems is really important. We have to put a little more of the human element into things again.”