There’s a new crisis affecting our kids, and we’re not ready for it

I was dozing off in bed when my wife hit me with the idea of a cell phone for our 11-year-old.

Our 11-year-old? I thought. As in the one who still gets the occasional Kool-Aid mustache? As in the one who still keeps stuffed animals on her bed? As in that 11-year-old? 

Not just for our 11-year-old, my wife clarified before I could speak up. Our two younger kids could also use it, depending on the situation. And it wouldn’t be a smart phone, she added, but a flip phone, with no internet access, of course.

Of course.

A week later, I’m still skeptical. I didn’t have my own cell phone until I was 21, and — sorry if I’m out of the loop here, fellow parents — I have a hard time understanding why a preteen — my preteen — might need one.

Maybe I’m just that selfish dad who wants his kids to stay Kool-Aid-mustache age forever. Maybe I’m paranoid. Or maybe I’m just concerned that things once widely associated with adulthood are overtaking our kids’ lives.

Turns out, maybe that’s the case. And an emerging crisis that experts say we’re not prepared for may illustrate why.

Days after the cell phone chat, I was in the middle of my morning regimen when a New York Times podcast popped up on — wait for it — my cell phone. Title: “Inside the Adolescent Mental Health Crisis.” Crux: “Mental health disorders have surpassed physical conditions as the main source of impairment and limitation among adolescents,” the Times reporter on the podcast said, citing a 2019 American Academy of Pediatrics statement.

Where things like runny noses and broken bones once defined adolescent health care, kids are now stricken with suicidal thoughts, self-harm and other mental health issues.

There’s a lot of moving parts behind the shift, the reporter noted, but those “grown-up” things mentioned above play a role. Here’s a breakdown of the problem:

  1. Kids’ physical development has sped up over the years, and as the podcast’s host pointed out, that means earlier changes to the part of the brain that prepares them to receive, and even “crave,” social information. Things kids never thought much about, like social hierarchy and competition, suddenly become “vivid” at an earlier age.
  2. Meanwhile, other parts of the brain that help make sense of this new information that is “suddenly so stimulating” haven’t developed yet, creating a “neurological mismatch” in the child.
  3. A “cascade of social, hierarchical and competitive information” fueled by things like social media, news of climate change and school shootings are hitting kids at a time when their “regulatory functions” aren’t there to help them make sense of how seriously to take the inrush of information.

In short, life complexities are hitting kids when they’re not ready for them — and a hyper-charged influx of information fueled by things like social media on handheld devices augment the problem.

The mismatch is hitting kids hard, the reporter noted. Self-destructive coping mechanisms are often the result, and their frequency has only ramped up in recent years:

  • 13% of adolescents in 2019 reported having a major depressive episode, up 60% from 2007, according to the Times.
  • Suicide rates, which had been stable among kids, leaped by nearly 60% from from 2007 to 2018.

Idaho’s not immune to the problem. Youth mental health challenges are on the rise nationally and statewide.

And then there’s this: Most pediatricians don’t feel prepared to “take on a larger role in addressing mental health problems,” the podcast reporter noted, again quoting the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Some educators see the writing on the wall. Facing a shortage of mental health professionals, school leaders across Idaho have had to get creative to meet student needs.

For one district, that means a new partnership — and a new budget item. The American Falls School District will this year pay CareSolace around $7,000 to help absorb its local caseload of mental health issues, said superintendent Randy Jensen.

“When appropriate,” said Jensen, school staff will “make a warm handoff” to the company, which will provide mental health and substance abuse counseling to local students, staffers and family members. Services range from treatment for bipolar disorders and anxiety to opioid and stimulant abuse.

And then there’s the whole discussion swirling around the impacts devices like cell phones have on learning — something educators have lamented for years.

With mental health at the forefront of another new school year, teachers, school leaders and state legislators across the country are pushing for more restrictions around phones in schools, CBS News reported earlier this month.

As a former teacher who’s now a dad, I can understand their concerns.

What do you think? What kind of impacts have a supercharged information flow had on your kid, if any? Has technology such as cell phones been a good or bad thing when it comes to learning? Email me at [email protected]
Devin Bodkin

About Devin Bodkin

EdNews assistant editor and reporter Devin Bodkin is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He lives and works in East Idaho. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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