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1. Through the Looking Glass

What it is: A new study published in JAMA Pediatrics suggests that teens who use social media during their formative years have alterations in their brain chemistry, particularly how they respond to social rewards.
What to make of it: This small study observed 169 adolescents for three years, starting at age 12. Participants in the study who regularly checked social media networks had increased neurological sensitivity to anticipating social rewards and punishments. It’s not clear to what extent these neurological changes occur—only that they did in this particular study. Some social media experts speaking with the New York Times cautioned against making sweeping generalizations about how social media is changing teens’ brains based on one limited data set. Social media affects every person differently, and perhaps it’s time to recognize that. One of the study’s authors says that these brain chemistry changes are neither good nor bad. Caring adults (and society at large) should be aware that this could be what that researcher calls “the new normal,” even if we don’t know its long-term implications.

2. Heart of Glass

What it is: Murder mystery Glass Onion on Netflix was the most-watched movie on the streaming service over the holiday weeks.
Why it’s not everyone’s favorite: Rian Johnson wrote and directed this sequel to 2019’s critical and commercially successful Knives Out, but reviews on this film have been more mixed. Daniel Craig returns as private investigator Benoit Blanc, a detective who is as disarming as he is brilliant. While Knives Out was an exercise in stylish restraint, Glass Onion takes a more fiery approach. The script puts a skewer through the American entertainment and political landscapes, with the star-studded cast playing caricature versions of influencers, actresses, governors, billionaires and YouTubers. Parents will want to know that there is a sexually suggestive scene between two characters, one of which is Outer Banks star Madelyn Cline; there is also some explicit language. Whether or not you find Glass Onion entertaining might depend on your appetite for the outlandish, as well as your willingness to suspend (like, really suspend) your disbelief.

3. Fragile as Glass

What it is: Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote for the Wall Street Journal about what he perceives as a lack of resilience among young people.
Why it’s worth reading: Haidt offers some supporting theories for what is behind the mental health crisis in today’s teens and young adults. He expresses dire concern over how Gen Z appears to live in a “defense” mode as opposed to being driven to make discoveries. Haidt, who has been studying this phenomenon for years, says that young English-speaking people are highly anxious and criticism-averse. His proposed solution is to raise the age of “Internet adulthood” to 16 or above, so that tweens and early teens can have a more analog childhood. Not everyone will agree that the situation is as frightening as the picture that Haidt paints, and that’s okay. But as the mental health of a generation continues on a downward trajectory, it’s important that we work to understand why this is happening and what might be done about it in 2023.

Song of the Week

“Kill Bill” by SZA: reaching #1 on Apple and Spotify, this deceptively breezy-sounding song is about SZA planning to murder her ex, much like the plot of the Tarantino movies that her title references. In the lyrics, even though she recognizes that it’s “not the best idea,” she concludes first that she’d “rather be in jail than alone,” and then in the last line of the song (after she has supposedly done the deed), that she would “rather be in Hell than alone.” For the full lyrics to the song, click here.

Translation: Fragile as Glass

Maybe someday our society will follow Haidt’s recommendation, and begin to regard internet access somewhat like driving a car. Eventually there may be a way to legitimately verify users’ ages, and maybe they’d have to pass a test about internet safety before they were legally allowed to log on.

Obviously there would always be kids who found a way to sneak on, older siblings who logged on for their younger brothers and sisters, etc. No one can deny that society changed when driver’s licenses became a requirement for driving; presumably, it would change again if the same thing happened for the internet.

The internet isn’t the only thing Haidt suggests as a root cause of the mental health crises and  general lack of resilience among Gen Z. Haidt attributes it to “the combination of social media and a culture that emphasizes victimhood.” But social media—if it isn’t already painfully obvious by now in this year of our Lord 2023—can and often does have negative impacts on teen health. “We have more than a hundred years of making things safe for children,” Haidt points out. “We require car seats and seat belts. We eliminated cigarette vending machines. We have fences around pools… [but] life went onto phone-based apps 10 years ago, and the protections we have for children are zero, absolutely zero.”

Parents are free to try to enforce something like his proposed 16-year-old age requirement. Part of the difficulty is that our kids are often surrounded by other kids who essentially have unlimited access to the internet, and no one likes to feel left out. But of course, if all of our kids’ peers were offline, everything else would change.

Here are some questions to spark conversation about this with your teens:

  • How would you feel if you and all your peers were forced off of social media?
  • What’s one thing you think adults miss in conversations about social media?
  • What do you think about the idea of a driver’s license for the internet? Do you hate it? Love it? Why?