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Sticks and Stones....

Updated: Feb 16, 2023

“…may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This rhyme has been shared with children continuously since its first publication in the 1800’s. Originally used as a defense against name calling and verbal bullying, it was intended to increase resiliency and teach children to not retaliate, choosing to remain calm instead. But has it? The increase in mental health struggles today would indicate that ‘sticks and stones’ (euphemistically) and hurtful words are impacting children and youth at increasing rates and, rather than boosting resiliency, are proving to have long-term detrimental consequences. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that half of all mental health disorders in adulthood start by age 14, with most cases undetected and untreated.

Psychologist Jean Twenge identifies those born between 1995 and 2012 as iGens. A defining characteristic of iGens is that they are the first generation whose lives have been saturated by mobile technology and social media. They have not known life without cell phones and the internet. It is estimated that this generation spends approximately five to six hours a day engaging in online texting, chatting, gaming, web surfing, and video sharing. Such prolonged use has resulted in electronic devices literally becoming an extension of who children are. Thankful for a quiet house, free of noise and sibling rivalry, many parents are unaware of the actual amount of time their children spend on electronic devices during a given week.

A study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology in 2019 indicates the teen mental health crisis has continued to increase at such a rate that mental health professionals have referred to the rising trend as an epidemic. Between 2009 and 2019, cases of major depression among teens rose by an overwhelming 69%. During the nine years between 2008 and 2017, the suicide rate among teens ages 18-19 increased by 56%. The recognition that more than two hours a day online puts youth at risk for serious mental health problems has come too late for some. Parents who have taken away electronic devices due to behavioral and academic concerns share that it was only when such a drastic step was taken that they realized the degree of the addiction.

Analyzing surveys on eleven million teens, Twenge noted that: 1) iGens have poorer emotional health thanks to new media and 2) iGens grow up more slowly. With no need for surveys, I, and others in my generation, have observed the impact of social media on young people today. We have seen evidence of the ‘poorer’ emotional health that Twenge references and the role social media has played in slowing down the maturation process. We have seen social media effectively intrude on the amount of time our youth spend engaged in activities that promote healthy physical, emotional, and social development that advances age-appropriate maturity necessary for children to effectively deal with adverse situations such as peer pressure, bullying, and cyberbullying and is best achieved through healthy family relationships and strong parental leadership; leadership that includes teaching children to be responsible and self-reliant by holding them accountable (for schoolwork, chores, commitments, behavior).

The research is clear: Our youth are struggling. With 99% of brain development occurring by age 5 and teen brains still developing, physical, mental, and emotional health is at stake. Even our lawmakers are becoming increasingly concerned. Recent senate hearings focused on the dangers of social media platforms on young users, with at least one senator citing concern about potential social media addiction. Those who work in the technology industry are clearly aware of the downside. One need only do a Google search to find articles reporting that Silicon Valley employees restrict screen time for their own children.

We simply cannot continue to ignore that being engrossed in electronic devices for hours on end puts children at risk of failing to develop resiliency and other skills necessary to effectively cope with adversity. Unless children are adequately taught coping strategies gained through experiencing regular, meaningful interactions with others, many will continue turn to media use to avoid confronting the sticks, stones and hurtful words that are part of life.

Because children only know what they want, not what they need, parents must passionately commit to setting media-use parameters without regard to the whims of (their) children. Knowing that ensuing storms will likely follow, hold fast to the knowledge that storms pass, sunshine returns, and when you least expect it, a rainbow may emerge.

© Sharon Knapp Lamberth, December 2021

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Jan 10, 2022

I really enjoyed your article Sticks and Stones. Emotional scars left from online bullying are truly devastating for young people. Trying to catch the problem before a bad exchange happens is the challenge. You are so right that at the appropriate age, parents need to set firm boundaries and talk openly about cyber bullying and how many young people have fallen into depression over this issue. I have often thought that pediatricians could be really instrumental in this area. Just talking about mental health along with physical health during yearly checkups with a child and their parents could help awareness. I really do not think elementary age children should have their own phone or i pad and that m…

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