Free-Range Kids

Social Media Making Kids Depressed? Send Them Outside To Play

When society criminalizes outdoor independence, it makes smart phone addiction more likely.


Are smart phones making young people—particularly teenage girls—depressed, anxious, and even suicidal? And if they are, what can be done about it?

Policymakers are considering a variety of options. Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.) would go so far as to prohibit kids and teens from using social media until they turn 16.

I wonder if we are overlooking a big part of the problem, and thus a potential solution. It's called enjoying the world.

If we stopped keeping kids in cars, classes, or on the couch all day, and if we gave them back some free time and free play, they would have an alluring alternative to the screen. When young people don't have opportunities to hang out with their friends in real life, unsupervised, the only place they can have fun and socialize freely is online.

That's concerning. My colleague and Let Grow co-founder Jonathan Haidt has assembled chilling data that shows childhood mental health problems increasing since 2012, the year the smart phone became ubiquitous. As Haidt testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in May: "When you compare rates in 2009—before most teens were daily users of social media—to 2019, the last full year before COVID-19 made things even worse, the increases are generally between 50 percent and 150 percent, depending on the disorder, gender, and subgroup."

For many kids, the choice is between being on social media vs. sitting it out while everyone else is on social media. These are bad options.

If parents and policymakers want get kids off social media, we need to make the alternative even more fun. Thankfully, playtime and exploration are super attractive, when kids actually get to do them.

It may feel like kids prefer the virtual world to the real one, but a 2010 survey asked them point blank which they prefer: playing with friends or playing online. Fully 89 percent chose playing with friends. Playing outside was their favorite activity of all.

All young mammals are programmed to play. While I, too, am currently addicted to my phone, I didn't have one as a kid, which meant that my free time was truly free—to ride my bike, play with friends, read, draw, and spend time in the woods. Lack of access to a movie theater/game device/popularity meter meant that I had to engage with whatever else there was: friends, fun, nature, and even boredom.

Over the course of the past several decades, as children's free time and "independent mobility" have declined, kids have clearly suffered. While this began long before the invention of the iPhone, social media does seem to have had a corrosive effect on at least some young people. Is there a way to fight back? And should it involve government controls? The answer I'd give is twofold.

First, we have to make it normal again for kids to be out and about on their own. That means the police and child services need to stop hassling parents who let their kids walk to school, to the park, and to friends' houses. When we make those activities impermissible, the only world left for kids to explore is online. In keeping kids safe from strangers, traffic, and bullies, we've actually make them unsafe from anxiety, depression, and suicide.

Second, we should also work to popularize programs like Wait Until 8th, where parents jointly agree to wait until their kids reach eighth grade before giving them a phone.

"The idea was: What if instead of you being the only one waiting, there were 10 other families from your grade waiting too?" says Brooke Shannon, Wait Until 8th's founder. She launched her campaign in 2017, "and within eight weeks we were in every state, because every family is wrestling with the same issue."

As for government controls, I am not opposed to a minimum age for kids to get on social media, just like I'm not opposed to a minimum age before they can drive a car or buy cigarettes.

In his lectures, Haidt says that after the folks at Facebook told him they don't allow anyone on their platform until age 13, he turned on his computer and created a fake profile within minutes, just as any kid could do. (Probably faster.) So a good start would be for the companies to actually enforce their ostensible rules.

I also think Let Grow's legal advocacy could make a dent in the problem. The "Reasonable Childhood Independence" bills we've helped pass in four states (with five more pending), clarify that it does not constitute neglect to let your kids play outside, walk around, or be unsupervised for a while, unless you've placed them in serious, obvious danger.

Let Grow's other answer to the problem of kids spending too much time on social media is to give them healthier alternatives: chances to be with friends, in real life, having plain old fun. To do this, we recommend schools stay open for two or three extra hours every day for mixed age, no-devices, free play before or after school. We call this a Let Grow Play Club, and our implementation guide is free. An adult is present, but like a lifeguard, they only intervene if an emergency arises. They don't organize the games or solve the arguments. It's a way of injecting a little 1974 into 2023.

When I asked Patrick, a fourth grader who participates in one of these play clubs, whether he preferred playing online or in real life, he said: "You get to be friends in virtual reality. The sad part is, when you take your headset off, you never get to see them." And his friend Karin added, "In real life you get to see them every day in school. You have actual friends."

Actual friends are key to fighting depression and loneliness. Now the articles are coming thick and fast about fancy schools and influential people limiting social media one way or another—and everyone being grateful for it (after an adjustment period). Fidias, the upbeat YouTube influencer with 1.6  million subscribers, told me he's had someone else posting his own videos for the past two months so he can stay offline and not read the (usually very complimentary) comments because they were "lowering the quality of my life," he said. Now "creative bored-ness fills my life, which is the one thing I was craving for."

Kids need some creative bored-ness. They come pre-programmed by Mother Nature to play. If the only place we allow them any to do that is online, that's where they will go. Give them back real friends in the real world—without adults constantly hovering and organizing things—and you just might have to clang a cowbell to get them to come inside for dinner.