I started researching this book because two mothers of teenagers told me to. My wife, Lizzie, said she was barely able to get through a conversation with another mother of teens without hearing about a child in counselling or on medication for anxiety and depression. Then my publisher, Ingrid, said exactly the same thing. Both of them felt something wasn’t right. This wasn’t how they grew up. They felt something was going on in the world of teenagers that was being hidden by the happy selfies on Facebook and Instagram, and they both wanted me to start digging to see if their hunches were right.
Before I started, I really wondered why I was bothering. Surely, I thought, everything that could possibly be written about parenting teens had already been done, and done better than I could ever do. Sure, there seemed to be more fuss in the media about teens overusing their phones, but I put that down to the perennial intergenerational problem of ‘teens these days’. Yes, it was a minute-by-minute fight in our house to keep the kids away from their school mandated iPads. And yes, the presence of those devices in the house had introduced a whole new level of sneaky behaviour and teen angst. But I put all that down to normal growing pains.
Then I started reading the research on the significant changes in reward pathways in adolescence. I wondered why I’d seen nothing much in the press about that well established biological reality. And I wondered why I saw even less about why that might be a problem in an age when billions are being spent by tech companies to encourage teenagers to become addicted to their products.
I knew software is engineered to addict. When it comes to non-business-related software, addictive products sell. Non-addictive products die a fast death. This is especially the case when every product in the category is ‘free’. I’d worked long enough in the industry to know how product management and marketing work. But I didn’t know that teens are particularly susceptible to addiction.
I knew it was always a struggle to prise a screen from our teenagers’ hands, but I tended to have a vaguely dismissive, ‘What harm can it really do?’ approach. And yes, I felt devices in schools were a significant distraction likely to impair performance, but I had no sense of how uniquely destructive to teen wellbeing they could be.
In short, I was happy to drift, uncomfortably, through allowing teen access to devices and accept, uneasily, the assurances that while they might be distracting, it was for the best or at least would do no permanent harm. That was until the union-of-the-mothers-of-teens told me to have a good hard look at it. In a nutshell, here’s what I found:
- The biology of puberty makes the teen brain uniquely fragile. It makes teens susceptible to addictions that can last for life and usher in mental illness.
- Parenting is much more permissive and parents need to harden up to save their kids.
- Unfettered access to screens is driving an epidemic of addiction, depression and anxiety, the likes of which we have never witnessed before.
What I found was frankly terrifying. In less than a decade we’ve totally changed the future of the human race, and we’ve done it without so much as a backward glance. Think that’s an overreach? Bear with me while I explain. …