What's Spoiling The Kids: The Big Tech v. Bad Parenting Debate
Without an extended family network, modern parents have sought to raise happy kids in a "hostile" world. It's a tall order, when youngsters absorb the fears (and devices) around them like a sponge.
BOGOTÁ — A 2021 report from the United States (the Youth Risk Behavior Survey) found that 42% of the country's high-school students persistently felt sad and 22% had thought about suicide. In other words, almost half of the country's young people are living in despair and a fifth of them have thought about killing themselves.
Such chilling figures are unprecedented in history. Many have suggested that this might be the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but sadly, we can see depression has deeper causes, and the pandemic merely illustrated its complexity.
I have written before on possible links between severe depression and the time young people spend on social media. But this is just one aspect of the problem. Today, young people suffer frequent and intense emotional crises, and not just for all the hours spent staring at a screen. Another, possibly more important cause may lie in changes to the family composition and authority patterns at home.
Firstly: Families today have fewer members, who communicate less among themselves.
Young people marry at a later age, have fewer children and many opt for personal projects and pets instead of having children. Families are more diverse and flexible. In many countries, the number of children per woman is close to or less than one (Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong among others).
In Colombia, women have on average 1.9 children, compared to 7.6 in 1970. Worldwide, women aged 15 to 49 years have on average 2.4 children, or half the average figure for 1970. The changes are much more pronounced in cities and among middle and upper-income groups.
Of further concern today is the decline in communication time at home, notably between parents and children. This is difficult to quantify, but reasons may include fewer household members, pervasive use of screens, mothers going to work, microwave ovens that have eliminated family cooking and meals and, thanks to new technologies, an increase in time spent on work, even at home. Our society is addicted to work and devotes little time to minors.
The 2019 Family Barometer study by the Sabana University in Chía, Colombia found that 81% of Colombian women believed intensive work was harming the time they spent with their children. Likewise in Spain, 63% of families told a 2017 survey that communication between parents and children had deteriorated in the preceding decade.
State of fear
Among their other 'uses,' siblings teach each other to share, solve conflicts and become more empathetic and a little less selfish. They leave us clothes, CDs or toys, and admittedly, tensions and rivalries we may grapple with all our lives.
But today, many children grow without these exceptional life teachers, a situation compounded by a father's absence at home. The father was usually associated with instilling the children with a sense of goals and the need for grit and tenacity.
Today, 85% of single-parent families are run by mom. Western culture has been quietly living through quiet, if profound, changes in recent decades.
There's a rise in permissive and overprotective families
These include the weakening of the extended and nuclear families, and reduced communications at home. Both produce an immense solitude that precedes emotional crises.
The consequences remain unclear for now, though we already know some of them: new generations marked by brittle emotions, due to having spent more time alone or having received less emotional support from parents, close relatives or even neighbors.
Secondly: Why are we seeing an exponential rise in permissive and overprotective families, among the middle to upper classes?
The UN's 2021/22 Human Development Report (Uncertain Times, Unsettled Lives) gave us a clue to understanding this excessive rise in 'helicopter parents,' and that is fear. The report's title is suggestive.
It analyzed 13 million news reports from the last 115 years and concluded, surprisingly, that the number of negative reports today far outnumbered those brought to the public attention in the First and Second World Wars. Most people live in a state of anxiety.
They believe crime has run amok and that modern life has brought us nothing but threats, wars and murder. It's a plausible conclusion often drawn from all the news they see and read, and partly responsible for the overprotective tendencies of many parents.
Put a chip in your kid?
Prominent researchers Steven Pinker and Johan Norberg believe however that we have overestimated risks today, living as we do in a comparatively peaceful and prosperous time in history.
They blame the misperception on mainstream and social media, though of course, our perceptions, even misperceptions, are subjective realities and the fact is, most adults are inclined to feel unsafe in the world today.
Overprotective parenting may have acutely adverse emotional effects. Anxious parents may have a perverse, if unconfessed, need to see their anxiety replicated in their children.
They may sleep easier seeing their children mimic (and thus vindicate) their concerns. The paradox of overprotection is that it leaves children unprotected, as they grow up to be insecure, less autonomous and relatively immature.
Many parents would put a chip in their children, if they could, to monitor their whereabouts at all times. Cell phones can be tweaked to perform this task, while some playgrounds in well-to-do precincts are now fitted with security cameras to show all movements in real time.
Expect more emotional crises in society without a change of educational norms at home and at school.
These are short-term solutions with undoubted, long-term effects on a child's growth and emotional evolution.
Separately, a world that overvalues personal achievements and equates happiness with an accumulation of material goods has fomented a new form of authority — the equally harmful, permissive family.
These are parents obsessed with ensuring their children are happy and have everything they want. As Tim Elmore (a writer and 'motivator') observes, such parents demand very little of their children and are quick to praise.
Yet these same children can grow up to be whimsical, selfish and disinclined to empathize. Many learn, early on, the hateful art of manipulation.
Clearly, fewer siblings, declining communications at home and reduced contact with an extended family, and overprotecting or indulgent parenting, will produce oversensitive youngsters, and adults.
Expect more emotional crises in society without a change of educational norms at home and at school. The thing is, cultural change takes a long time.
*De Zubiría is an educator and headmaster of the Alberto Merani school in Bogotá.