Guest post contributed by youth advocate and speaker, Collin Kartchner, who travels the country to help educate teens, parents and youth workers about the dangers of unmonitored smartphone and social media use for youth.

I woke up today to yet another tragic news story involving a child, a catastrophic decision, a smartphone and social media.

A 12 year-old girl in Detroit was severely burned from head to toe after attempting a “Fire Challenge”, which is making its way around YouTube. For parents who aren’t aware, the “Fire Challenge” is where kids dare others to douse their body in rubbing alcohol, then light themselves on fire.

This 6th grader is now 50% covered in severe burns and will spend the rest of her life dealing with the physical, emotional, and psychological effects of one decision.

To any adult, the idea of dousing your body in alcohol and lighting yourself on fire, just for social media likes or Youtube views, sounds utterly insane. Because it is. But to a child growing up in this digital world where likes, views, comments and retweets are their form of emotional currency, eating Tide Pods or drinking scalding water for those likes is now an everyday occurrence.

The mom of this poor child begged parents, “Monitor these kids, especially with these phones. And if I could, after this happening, my kids would never be able to be on social media — no more iPhones, nothing.”

Her daughter will wear these scars for life. They’ll be a constant reminder to both mother and child of that fateful decision when she handed her a smartphone as a 12 year-old.

As I travel around the country, educating parents about what kids today are doing on social media and how harmful these apps can be on a child’s mental health, I hear from parents:

“Not my kid.”

“Not our school.”

“Not our community.”

Well, I have a newsflash for you. The issues affecting tweens and teens because of untethered access to social media are no respecter of geographic region, socio-economic status, education, religion or race. Kids are kids. And because their pre-frontal cortex is not fully developed until the ages of 24-30, they can not be responsible for impulse control, logic, and decision-making. If you hand your child a smartphone with unmonitored access to social media, it’s like handing them keys to the car at 12 with zero driver’s education. I ask, why then do we sit here in shock when they continue to crash and burn daily? We are handing them a proverbial rattlesnake–why then are we freaking out when they are bit?

Sadly, the potential physical harm that can happen because of social media is very small when compared to the psychological and emotional harm these apps cause tweens and teens. Parents and educators need to finally wake up to the reality of how severe the problem these devices are creating in our younger generations.

I would like to share one of the thousands of messages, from a teenager, I have received as I have spent the last year raising awareness about the effects social media has on our mental health.

This message comes from a 17 year-old girl, in my home state of Utah:

Hi Collin, I just wanted to thank you for everything you do. It’s so refreshing to see someone standing up to this issue…you’re using your platform to save lives. You’ve moved mountains in my life, and others.

 

I’m 17 years-old and I struggle with body dysmorphic disorder, depression, and anxiety. I received my first phone and social media accounts around the age of 11, how crazy is that?! Social media really is a drug, and the minute I got a phone in my hands, I was hooked. Everything evil was at my fingertips. People posting lies that made me feel so inferior, products being sold that just fueled my BDD to the max, pornography on my feed, even accounts that promote eating disorders and self harm. I fed off this stuff for the longest time and it destroyed me.

 

I KNOW that if I never had social media at such a young and impressionable age, things in my life wouldn’t have crashed so hard.

 

I WISH I could tell all the parents to watch their kids, please!!!! I wish so badly that my parents had monitored my phone when I was young and saved me from that darkness. I dealt with suicide attempts, self harm, anorexia, hospital visits, countless therapy, addiction. I was lucky to survive because lots of kids don’t. I don’t blame this all on social media, but I know that it had a huge impact on how deep I fell. It took my innocence away and taught me how to hate who I am.

I can’t help but tear up reading this. Maybe it’s because I have 3 daughters myself. Maybe it’s because I know how easy it would’ve been to avoid this reality for this girl. Maybe because I get messages like this all day long and wonder when are we all finally going to say “enough is enough”, and stand up to “big tech” and the damage these platform are causing our youth. Read her plea one more time:

“I wish so badly my parents had monitored my phone when I was young and saved me from this darkness.”

Which brings me to a point I stress each and every time I speak to parents— if your children are on social media, you better be on there with them. If they are your child and they live in your home (and you are paying for their cell phone), there is no such thing as privacy. Snapchat and Instagram are not their diary, they are apps that have the ability to ruin lives for these tweens and teens. It happens more often than you would think. Being able to monitor your child, along with weekly, if not daily phone checks, is critical to raising mentally and emotionally resilient children in 2018.

Messages like this, and countless others, are sent to me each and every day from tweens and teens, and they are not slowing down. Something has to be done, something needs to be fixed.

In 2016 Dr. Jean Twenge published one of the most eye-opening books on this younger generation entitled iGen. In it she shares her research on how screen time and social media addictions affect our younger generations. One sentence hit me like a ton of bricks:

“We are standing on the verge of the greatest mental health crisis this generation has ever seen.”

That was two years ago. We are no longer on the verge—the verge is now. And something has to be done.

Tablets, smartphones and video games have become the new digital babysitter. So many parents I talk to are working day in and day out at neck-breaking speeds just to be able to give their kids anything and everything they ask for, including putting their kids in every extracurricular activity known to man. After these long days they find it so much easier to just hand their emotionally needy children an iPad or game controller so Mom and Dad can just veg out.

Parents have shared with me that Fortnite or Instagram took over their kids entire summer vacation. I hear comments like, “My son plays Fortnite all day long, there’s nothing I can do about it” or “My daughter spends all day glued to her phone, all night too. I don’t know what to do.”

Have we forgotten that “parent” is not just a noun, but also a verb. It’s an action. It takes action. It takes work. If we hand these devices over to our kids and expect them to self-regulate 1 hour later and hand them back, we are kidding ourselves. We have to step in and step up, and take back control of the technology we are allowing to run our lives and our families. We have to stop playing defense and go on a full offensive attack on big tech’s ploy to hook our children, extract pieces of information from our kids for profit, then keep them addicted for decades. If parents only knew the army of addiction experts and MIT PhDs working for Silicon Valley with one task, to turn our children into digital crack-addicts, I think we would all take up our proverbial arms, organize marches, and demand change.

But change starts small, with one or two voices that become five or six. Change starts in our own homes. Change starts when we, as parents, finally put our devices down and reconnect with our kids. Change begins when we have broken free of our own addiction to the numbing effects of scrolling the endless void of Facebook or Instagram.

Our kids are dying, and it is happening all around us. And it’s not just physical death, as we’ve seen the rate of youth suicide sky-rocket since social media became standard use in 2010. Our kids’ hearts are dying, their souls are dying, their neurons are dying.  We are handing them devices that are stealing their joy, robbing them of their innocence, opening them up to a world of evil, years before they are ready for it. And we did it because “big tech” told us to, that these were okay for kids, just like “big tobacco” did not too many years ago.

Yes, there is so much good you can do with social media. Yes, technology isn’t going anywhere. But these platforms were not designed for tweens and teens. Their “more is better” mindset is a recipe for disaster with social media. Their desire to do anything to fit in or be liked, combined with social media, is a recipe for disaster. They can and will be ready for it, but we can’t teach the maturity required to successfully navigate through this digital world. It’s like handing them a pair of shoes that are too big. They will fit, eventually, but not yet.

If you are going to allow your child to be on social media, you better be on there with them. If you are going to allow them untethered access to the thoughts and minds of two billion other humans on the internet, please think long and hard about the world you will open them up to. Imagine being 13 again. Now imagine being 13, but with social media and the entire world in your pocket. Let kids be kids.