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The smartphone pandemic

Where I Come From: Screens have a chokehold on us, on our children and on our parents. We have access to nearly everything at our fingertips — but at what cost?

Betty Haynes

May 2, 2024

3 Min Read
Bandaids scattered around a smartphone with an image of a brain on the screen
BAND-AID: Like a moth to a flame, I’m drawn to the short-term mental Band-Aid of smartphone usage, without considering long-term consequences like increased anxiety and depression. Betty Haynes

I am just old enough to have had a phone-less, social media-less childhood. Smartphones and Facebook came onto the scene when I was in high school. It was the era of posting photos of your meals and making nonsense status updates — harmless, right?

Fast forward to 2024 and I’m addicted, my husband is addicted, and my generation is addicted. We’re tethered to these bricks in our pockets, seeking the next rush of dopamine. And it’s making us miserable.

I can’t help but feel like we’ve opened Pandora’s box. Smartphones are part of life now. They’re engrained in our society. We bring them everywhere and have access to nearly all information at our fingertips. But, at what cost? And will we ever be the same?

The new normal

This year I told my mom I had been feeling anxious, having trouble focusing, and feeling like my memory isn’t what it should be. She was shocked and said she had never noticed these traits in me as a child and teen. She asked if I had always felt that way — and honestly, no I haven’t. It’s all come on in adulthood. 

So, what’s different now? I can think of a few things that have impacted my adult mental health: social media, COVID-19, parenthood, increased responsibilities. Likely all are to blame to some degree, but I can’t ignore the impact screen time has had on my brain.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s book, “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness,” explores this phenomenon. Haidt’s research shows millennials and Generation Z experience anxiety, depression and self-harm at rates far higher than their older counterparts. He contributes this to a move away from what he calls the “play-based childhood” of the 1980s and 1990s toward a “phone-based childhood” of the 2000s and 2010s.

Uncharted territory

All that to say, parenting in 2024 feels like uncharted territory. I knew a world without smartphones, and my daughter’s generation will not.

Of our friends with kids, half are raising iPad kids, who are handed a screen at the first sign of inconvenience. At a restaurant with a fussy toddler? Hand them an iPad. Grocery shopping with your little ones? Hand them an iPad. Trying to clean the house without distraction? Hand them an iPad.

I won’t lie, I’ve been shamefully guilty of the restaurant trick, but there are consequences to raising children who must be constantly entertained. I can’t ignore that screens turn my ABBA-loving, kitten-chasing, book-reading toddler into a zombie with a short fuse. 

The other half of our friends are withholding screens as long as they can. My husband and I have talked about switching to flip phones, and we may not put a TV in our new house. I know how radical that sounds, and I’m not sure completely abstaining from screens is the right answer. But as the last generation from Haidt’s “play-based childhood,” we’re desperately trying to make the right decision for our daughter. We’re floundering in the abyss of screens and overstimulation and mental health problems, trying to pick up the pieces from when smartphones went from helpful to haywire.

I don’t have all the answers, but I know the next generation of parents has some critical smartphone decisions to make for their children’s mental health and development. Does that scare you? It should.

Where do you think society goes from here? Let me know your thoughts. Email [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Betty Haynes

Betty Haynes is the associate editor of Prairie Farmer. She grew up on a Menard County, Ill., farm and graduated from the University of Missouri. Most recently, Betty worked for the Illinois Beef Association, entirely managing and editing its publication.

She and her husband, Dan, raise corn, soybeans and cattle with her family near Oakford , Ill., and are parents to Clare.

Betty won the 2023 Andy Markwart Horizon Award, 2022 Emerging Writer, and received Master Writer designation from the Ag Communicators Network. She was also selected as a 2023 Young Leader by the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists.

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