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    What You Need to Know About Smartphones, Teens and Depression

    Panicking About Your Kids’ Phones? New Research Says Don’t is the title of an article in the New York Times. 

    The writer says a growing number of academicians are challenging the true impact of social media and smartphones, questioning whether too much time on devices is actually the culprit for the dramatic increase in anxiety, depression and other mental health issues, especially in teens.

    Before you jump on that bandwagon, believing the claims, you might want to hear what psychologist Jean Twenge has to say. Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State and author of numerous books including Generation Me and her most recent release, iGen: Why Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.

    In a blog for the Institute for Family Studies, Twenge calls out the NYT writer on six facts that, she claims, he ignores. 

    Twenge contends that the NYT article grossly misrepresents the research consensus on technology and mental health because the article makes it sound as if the majority of researchers have concluded that technology use isn’t related to mental health. Twenge says that is not the case. 

    “The article also misrepresents findings from a recent review of screen time and mental health studies,” writes Twenge. “The article does mention a recent review of studies on screen time and mental health by Amy Orben, who concluded that the average correlation between social media use and depressive symptoms is between .11 and .17.”

    The article cites this study as evidence that the link is small, but Twenge argues these are not small effects. Data from the CDC’s Youth Risk Survey of US High School students indicates that twice as many heavy users of electronic devices (5+ hours a day) compared to light users (1 hour a day) have attempted suicide (12% vs. 6%).

    Twenge states that the NYT article quotes experts who, without plausible evidence, dismiss the possibility that the rise of social media and smartphones might be behind the marked rise in teen depression, self-harm and suicide in recent years. The article quotes Jeff Hancock of the Stanford Social Media Lab as saying, “Why else might American kids be anxious other than telephones? How about climate change? How about income inequality? How about more student debt?”

    “The problem with this argument is that none of these factors can explain the increase in teen mental health issues that began in 2012,” Twenge writes. “First, they didn’t happen at the same time. The largest increases in income inequality occurred between 1980 and 2000… Student loan debt has been stable since 2012. The number of Americans worried a fair amount or a great deal about climate change went from 73% in 2012 to 74% in 2019.”

    Twenge contrasts this with 2013, the first year the majority of Americans owned a smartphone. By 2018, 95% of teens had access to a smartphone and 45% of them said they were online “almost constantly.”

    “The largest increase in self-harm, self-poisoning and suicide occurred among 10- to 14-year-old girls,” Twenge writes. “Hancock would have us believe that 10- to 14-year-olds are harming themselves because they are upset over income inequality or possibly someday having to pay off student loans after college - not because they are bullied online, not because they feel constant pressure to look perfect on social media, not because they can access online sites instructing them in self-harm, and not because electronic communication has replaced in-person interaction, a basic human need.”

    While Twenge does state that concern about climate change seems plausible, she asks, “How many 12-year-old-girls do you know who are cutting themselves because the planet is warming? It is much more likely they are concerned about self-image, social status, friendships and family relationships - all issues that have become fraught in the age of social media.” 

    Twenge also notes that the rise in depression, self-harm and suicide has been considerably larger among girls than boys. She contends that all of the issues listed above should impact boys and girls equally. Thus, they do not explain why the rise would be larger for girls.

    Technology use, however, does differ by gender. Girls spend more time on social media, which may be more toxic than the gaming which is more popular among boys.

    Twenge calls out the author for combining two completely separate questions - whether technology use is related to depression among individuals and whether the increase in smartphone and social media use is related to the generational increase in teen depression.

    “Even teens who don’t use technology have been affected by the shift in teen social life from in-person get-togethers to online interactions,” Twenge says. “Consider a teen who doesn’t use social media and would prefer to go out with her friend, but who will she go out with when everyone else is at home on Instagram?”

    The NYT article also points to Europe as proof that smartphones are not behind the increase in teen depression, yet the evidence shows otherwise. The study used to make the case examines adults, not teens. The World Health Organization reports increases in suicide rates around the world, with the largest increases among youth.

    The last point Twenge makes is that while the researchers claiming that technology use is unrelated to well-being said they had not taken any funding from the tech industry, one of them is currently employed and one was previously employed by the Oxford Internet Institute, which is funded by Facebook, Google and Microsoft. 

    “Parents can rest assured that their instincts to protect their kids from too much screen time are not wrong,” Twenge writes. “If kids who ate five apples a day versus one were twice as likely to attempt suicide, parents would make extremely sure their kids didn’t eat too many apples. Why should our response to technology time be any different?”

    The moral of this story is - don’t believe everything you read. Check the facts for yourself. What you don’t know can hurt you and the ones you love.

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on February 1, 2020.

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    How You Can Help End Child Trafficking

    Did you know...?

    • Pedophiles and traffickers can message your children through YouTube.
    • Human trafficking doesn’t just happen in big cities. It happens in every zip code.
    • Boys are trafficked, too.
    • Traffickers can be doctors, lawyers and CEOs.
    • Foster care children, immigrants and refugees are at greatest risk for becoming victims.
    • Your child has already been targeted by a human trafficker.
    • Many children and teens are trafficked in plain sight. 

    (Source: Military Moms Blog, October 2019)

    January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month and Jerry Redman, executive director of Street Grace Tennessee, wants everyone to know the definition of human trafficking, the signs to look for and what you should do if you suspect someone is being trafficked.

    “So many people think this doesn’t happen in their backyard, or that its presence in a community is a result of the interstate system,” says Redman. “Neither of these statements are true. Whether you live in a town of 50,000 or in the largest city in America, many people have this false sense of security which actually makes everyone more vulnerable.”

    WHAT IS HUMAN TRAFFICKING?

    Human trafficking, according to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, is the use of force, fraud or coercion to commercially exploit someone. It is a crime of connection or a crime of convenience. In other words, if a person is looking to sell a person, they need access to that person to groom them. It is easier to groom someone they can already access. In fact, 41% of trafficked children are trafficked by a family member. Girls are targeted more than boys, but boys, (especially young boys) are also targeted.

    “Many people are under the assumption that it is mostly runaway and homeless youth who are at risk for being trafficked. That is a myth,” Redman says. “I can think of two stories of women being trafficked in plain sight that I believe drive home the point that we all need to be very aware of what is happening around us - even in our own home.

    “A young woman who lived in a solidly upper middle class situation was trafficked by someone with a connection to her family. She was in school and not deprived in any way. She lived with her parents in a very caring environment. No one would have ever guessed that she was being trafficked.”

    Theresa L. Flores tells her story in The Slave Across the Street. At 16, she was literally trafficked out of her own home by classmates and was too ashamed and scared to tell anyone that it was going on. 

    WHAT YOU CAN DO...

    If you want to help put an end to human trafficking, here are some things you should look for:

    • Does someone appear to be under the control of someone else?
    • Is the person who appears to be in control doing all the talking?
    • Is the suspected trafficking victim dressed appropriately?
    • Has the person looked up once?
    • Has the person spoken?

    “These are signs that all of us should be aware of,” Redman says. “It’s also important to know that sometimes victims will come straight out and tell you they are being trafficked. If that happens, your job is to remain calm, believe them and call the police. Some people are hesitant, worried about being wrong. Authorities will tell you: It is better to be wrong than to not report. Additionally, in most states, adults are mandated reporters of any type of suspected child abuse.

    “If the person you suspect is being trafficked is an adult, you can still call the police. Ultimately, the person will have to be the one to make the decision about their next steps, but you can tell them there are resources and you can give them the national hotline number - 888-373-7888.”

    In the fight to eradicate human trafficking, authorities are pursuing traffickers in creative ways, including technological partnerships. For example, when someone solicits sex online from someone they believe to be a child, the solicitor receives a message saying, “This is not a real child. You are now on our radar and your information has been turned over to the authorities. Additionally, the person is sent another email saying, “We know you have a problem and here is information about where to seek help.” 

    However, the biggest help in this fight actually comes from everyday people - observant and informed citizens who know the definition and the signs of human trafficking.

    “Many states across the country are partnering with national authorities to put more stringent policies in place,” Redman says. “In fact, Tennessee, Montana, Nevada, Georgia and Louisiana received the highest scores from Shared Hope for their work to end human trafficking. With all of the work that has happened over the last 20 years, I believe we are actually in a position to see human trafficking either eradicated or close to that in this century. But, it will take all of us working together to make that happen.”

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on January 25, 2020.

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    How to Have Real Conversations

    In his book, The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction, Justin Earley shares this quote by Mortimer J. Adler: 

    “Without communication, there can be no community. … That is why conversation, discussion, or talk is the most important form of speaking and listening.”

    FRIENDSHIP MATTERS

    In recent years, we are having fewer and fewer sit-down, face-to-face conversations. Those things seem to have been replaced by texting, emojis, messaging on Facebook and emails. All these things may have short-circuited our ability to know each other deeply.

    News stories abound about the increase in anxiety and depression for all ages, we have seen the suicide rate triple for teens, and surveys indicate we as a culture are lonelier than we have ever been. In light of that, perhaps the new year should be designated as a year of intentional conversation with others.

    “Everything in the universe has its roots in friendship,” says Earley. “That means that longing to be in right relationship with other people and things is at the heart of every molecule in existence - and most powerfully in our own hearts.”

    Earley explains that conversation exposes us in two ways: face-to-face conversation brings risks and truth-telling happens.

    HOW WE COMMUNICATE IMPACTS EVERYONE

    Massachusetts Institute of Technology psychologist and author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle believes that replacing face-to-face communication with technology is depleting people’s capacity for empathy toward others. Research has shown that the way people are currently seeking to communicate through devices has threatened true friendship. Instead of things happening in real time right in front of us, people are planning and curating the versions of themselves that they want to bring to the discussion. 

    Removing tone of voice, facial expression and body language from communication leaves the conversation lacking in so many ways. How can we bring back real, honest conversation? It’s not as hard as you might think.

    • Make an effort to remove devices from the dinner table whether you are at home or at a restaurant. 
    • Create space for regular conversation and fellowship with family and friends. Instead of the well-meaning, “Let's get together soon!” pull up your calendar and set a date to get together to catch up on life. 
    • For the sake of your emotional health, there should be a couple of people you connect with on a regular basis. These would be the people Earley is describing with whom risky conversations take place, truth-telling occurs and perfection is not expected.
    • When it comes to modeling the art of conversation with your children, create tech-free zones/times in your home where your family can come together for game night or other activities that invite the opportunity for conversations to occur. 

    CONVERSATION STARTERS

    If you feel like you aren’t great at getting conversations going, here are a few questions to get you started:

    • What is something that is popular now that totally annoys you and why?
    • What is the best/worst thing about your work/school?
    • If you had intro music, what song would it be and why?
    • Where is the most beautiful place you have ever been?
    • If you had to change your name, what would it be and why?
    • How should success be measured, and by that measurement, who is the most successful person you know?
    • If you could learn the answer to one question about your future, what would the question be?
    • What was the best period of your life so far? What do you think will be the best period of your entire life?

    People of all ages are actually dying from the lack of community that currently exists in our culture, but that trend does not have to continue. Every person can be intentional about having regular meaningful conversations with others. Imagine how different our culture could be if we all committed to working on this.

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on December 28, 2019.

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    First Holiday Without Mom or Dad

    The first holiday after the death of a parent is often the hardest one to celebrate, kicking off a year-long wave of fresh grief and memories for those who are left behind and struggling to make sense of their new normal. Christmas can be an especially tough holiday. 

    When Karen Wilson lost her father, Ray Murphy, seven years ago in December, she knew she was going to miss him and all of the joy and traditions he brought into their family celebrations. 

    “Christmas was his holiday and December was his month. He was jovial and funny, and he was a presence at Christmas. Everyone looked forward to being with him because he really got into it. I mean, he went way over the top and absolutely loved seeing joy in people’s faces,” says Karen. “At one point, he even converted the attic into a Christmas village which was a sight to behold.”

    When her parents were living, Karen and her siblings did their own family Christmas in the morning and then went over to her parents’ house for Christmas together. They all looked forward to having their family picture taken together, which predictably took forever because her dad would forget to set the timer or somebody blinked.

    Two or three years before he passed away, her father wasn’t able to do what he loved to do during the holidays anymore. It was difficult for Karen and her family to watch because his limitations depressed him, but they tried to make it festive for him. It wasn’t long before they stopped going to their parents’ house for Christmas.

    “What I miss the most,” Karen says, “He would call me two weeks before Christmas and say, ‘Karem ( that was his nickname for me), it’s time. We need to go shopping for your mom.’ Just the two of us would go out to the mall. I would have to hold him back because he wanted to buy her everything. My job was to help him focus - we would spend several hours, and then go to lunch. I would take everything home with me and wrap it and then take it to him to put under the tree.” 

    Another thing Karen loved about her father was the way he carried on with his grandchildren.

    “He was always very secretive about what he was up to for the grandkids. They loved that about him. Everybody knew it would be some kind of mechanical contraption. While he did it for the kids, he was for sure the biggest kid about celebrating the holiday. Anybody who knew my dad knew that he loved his family and loved Jesus.”

    While Ray’s family mourned him after he passed, seeing him in declining health for so long seemed to prepare them for his passing. It was almost as if they had already grieved over losing him while he was alive and in poor health.

    “Mom died about 13 months after Dad,” Karen says. “When they both were gone, my sister and brother and I felt like it was almost more emotional than when Dad died. You knew they were both gone. It felt like a huge void for all of us.”

    Christmas looks a lot different for Karen and her family now. Today, she and her family go to her brother’s house in the afternoon and tell stories and share memories of their parents. Their kids remember and enjoy telling their own stories, too. They laugh and honor them through their memories, and they have a good time together.

    If this is your first holiday without your loved one, here are some things to consider.

    • Be gentle with yourself. Give yourself permission to grieve, and don’t allow others to tell you how to grieve, because everyone experiences loss differently.
    • Remember. Telling stories about your loved one can help you process, remember and honor them as you celebrate with others. Some people choose to place a special ornament on the tree in remembrance of their loved one. Others may display a holiday photo or there may be a tradition they started that you wish to carry on. 
    • Ask for help if you need it, because grieving is just plain hard. It’s not always possible to move forward in the way you’d like, and it may be helpful to draw others into your process who have walked the road before you and have managed their emotions in a healthy way. You might try a friend or family member, spiritual leader, professional counselor or grief support group. 

    Sometimes it is difficult to know when you aren’t doing well. If people you know and trust encourage you to seek help, listen to them. When going through the grief process, there are periods when it is hard to see the forest for the trees because it is just overwhelming to deal with all that is on your plate.

    During the holidays, you might be tempted to try and fill all of your moments to keep you busy and distracted. That works for some people. While it isn’t a bad thing to have some celebrations to look forward to, be sure to give yourself room to breathe, but not so much time that you are consumed by your loss.

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on December 21, 2019.

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    10 Sanity-Saving Tips for Holiday Gatherings

    Celebrating the holidays with family looks different for everyone, and it can be super stressful. Some families get along really well and they look forward to being together. They never speak harshly or cry, get in a hurry, burn the rolls, forget to thaw the turkey or have a meltdown at any point. Other families just know that major conflict or hurt feelings are predictable, but they long for something different. 

    Whether your family gatherings are fun and carefree or they’re not the stuff of your dreams, the way you choose to communicate at a get together can make a huge difference in the way you feel when you head home. These ideas can help you out!

    • Consider trying to get on the same page ahead of time. Talk about who is coming so you can prepare, especially if there will be extra people that you or your children don’t know well or see often.
    • Anticipate and set boundaries. Most families have at least one person who has the potential to make extended family gatherings interesting, if not downright miserable. Don't let them get under your skin. Instead, take a deep breath, recognize you are only going to be around them for a limited time and don’t allow them to steal your joy. You don’t have to prove your point, have the last word or “win in a conversation with them.” Consider telling everybody that super-divisive hot topics are off limits for discussion at the gathering.
    • Be self-aware and teach your children to do the same. Talk about what to do if someone says something hurtful or gets on your nerves. In the moment, it is easy to forget that you have a choice when it comes to how you will respond. Discuss how you know when someone is getting the best of you: your heart starts beating faster, sometimes people feel warm, your palms sweat or you want to cry. All of those are warning signs can let you know to proceed with caution, help you stay in control of your emotions and choose how to respond to the person. If you talk about it ahead of time, chances are good that you will be better prepared and won’t feel the need to lash out, defend or lose it. 
    • Get your ZZZs. Believe it or not, getting enough rest can be a huge help when it comes to healthy communication with family members. Rest helps you to think clearly and to not be so on edge. When you are tired, it is easier for people to get the best of you.
    • Guard against anticipating too much about how things are going to go in general or with a certain person. You can actually make the situation worse if you have played scenarios over and over again in your head. It’s one thing to prepare yourself; it’s another thing to have yourself so on edge that if someone uses the wrong tone of voice or a certain word it sets you off. 
    • Take a breather. If you think things are escalating and you don’t feel like you are doing well, go for a walk to get some fresh air. If that’s not an option, find a quiet place to breathe and calm down. Research indicates that just 20 minutes of doing something different will help you recalibrate and handle a situation better.
    • Have a plan. Sometimes it helps to bring a little structure to the gathering instead of everybody just hanging out, opening the door to who knows what. Keeping everybody occupied can go a long way toward keeping the peace and creating fun. Grab some boxes of graham crackers, gum drops, candy canes, pretzels and other fun treats and let people make gingerbread houses. Or, gather food items and such and have everybody help make care packages for the local homeless shelter. Divide into teams and play several rounds of Minute to Win It (this is easy for children and adults to do together). Get a fun Christmas puzzle and let everybody work on it. Once it’s finished you can frame it. Play a game of Name that Tune: Christmas Edition. Anything that creates an atmosphere of fun is helpful.
    • Pay attention to others. If you really want to make someone feel special and set the tone for the day, be interested in the things that matter to them. Request that delicious casserole recipe, ask to see recent photos or find something to compliment about them. Ask them what the best part of their year has been.  
    • Know when it’s time to go. If you’ve tried all you know to try and you’re either not enjoying yourself or you are feeling emotionally or physically drained, it may be time to make a graceful exit. Give everyone a hug or shake hands, say thank you and end your visit well. 
    • Keep your expectations realistic. Acknowledge that perfect holiday celebrations can actually be overrated. After all, think about all the things you laugh about from past celebrations - it’s probably not all the things that went just right. 

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on December 14, 2019.


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    Do Happy Couples Argue?

    Even after being married for 30 years, I vividly remember our first argument after we got married. It was intense and to be honest, it scared me. In my mind, I thought, “Wait, we are happy and we love each other, but happy couples don’t argue, do they?”

    I wish I knew then what I know now: Happy couples do argue. In fact, they actually argue about the very same things unhappy couples argue about - money, children, in-laws and intimacy.

    Amy Rauer, associate professor of child and family studies and director of the Relationships and Development Lab at the University of Tennessee, along with three colleagues - Allen Sabey at Northwestern University, Christine Proulx at University of Mississippi and Brenda Volling at University of Michigan - looked at two sets of couples who described themselves as happily married. One group had been married an average of 9 years and the other group had been married an average of 42 years.

    Couples ranked the issues they tended to argue about from most to least serious. Intimacy, leisure, household chores, communication and money were among the most serious, as was health for older couples. Jealousy, religion and family fell on the least serious end of the spectrum.

    Researchers saw that these couples focused on the issues with clearer solutions such as division of household chores or how to spend leisure time. The couples rarely chose to argue about harder-to-resolve issues, which Rauer suggests could be one of the keys to their marital success.

    “Focusing on the perpetual, more difficult to solve problems may undermine partners’ confidence in the relationship,” says Rauer.

    Longer-married couples reported fewer serious issues and argued less overall, which is consistent with previous research suggesting that older partners’ perceptions of spending less time together may lead them to prioritize their marriage and decide some issues are not worth fighting over.

    When it comes to not discussing the more difficult issues such as health and intimacy, researchers said that part of the challenge could be that spouses believed talking about it might make the partner believe they were challenging their competence or it would make the spouse feel vulnerable or embarrassed, which might result in more conflict.  

    “Since these issues tend to be more difficult to resolve, they are more likely to lead to less marital happiness or the dissolution of the relationship, especially if couples have not banked up any previous successes solving other marital issues,” Rauer says. “If couples feel that they can work together to resolve their issues, it may give them the confidence to move on to tackling the more difficult issues.”

    There are several really useful takeaways from this study.

    • Learning to choose your battles matters. Early on, it might be a little more difficult to discern what is a mountain and what is a molehill. Some of this can happen through conversation and some will happen through experience. The most important thing? Focus on the issue and don't point the proverbial finger at your spouse. 
    • Differentiate between issues that truly need resolution versus those that can be set aside for the time being. Sometimes timing or taking time to process can make all the difference, and some challenging issues really do require an amount of simmering on to figure out what you think before you can even talk about a helpful resolution. Plenty of long-married couples could tell you that sometimes there is no quick fix. It may help to talk and think, then repeat the process over time in order to solve certain problems well.
    • Seek to be solution-oriented. Clearly, couples who focused on working together to find a solution seemed to be happier in their relationship. Also, working as a team to solve less-challenging issues builds confidence that is helpful when tackling more complicated issues. 
    • No matter what stage of marriage you are in, there will always be something to argue about. Remember - your spouse is not the enemy. Choosing the issues you will focus on matters and making some intentional decisions together about how you will engage around those issues will impact your marital happiness, for better or for worse.

    Even after 30 years of marriage, obviously there are issues that still arise. We have learned over time that many of the issues we spent a lot of time and energy on were molehills. Ultimately, we began asking, “Is this something that will matter a month from now or six months from now?” If the answer was yes, we began to problem-solve together. If the answer was no, we stopped letting it distract us from what really mattered - our marriage.

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on February 15, 2020.

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    7 Ways to Embrace Being a #girldad

    Kobe Bryant’s untimely death brought to the forefront a great conversation about being a girl dad. 

    Elle Duncan from ESPN Sports Center spoke about meeting Bryant when she was eight months pregnant. He congratulated her and when he found out she was having a girl, and he high-fived her and said, “Girls are the best!” 

    Bryant said that he and his wife had talked about having more children, but they joked: What if they had another girl? 

    Duncan said, “Four girls. Are you joking? What would you think? How would you feel?” 

    Without hesitation, Bryant said, “I would have five more girls if I could. I’m a girl dad!”

    Beyond his basketball legacy, Bryant will certainly be remembered for enthusiastically embracing his role as a girl dad. 

    A healthy father-daughter relationship can give a daughter the self-confidence to deal with challenging issues. However, when fathers are not engaged, research shows that daughters often struggle with abandonment issues, lack of self-esteem, feelings of unworthiness and are especially vulnerable to predators. 

    Girls who grow up without a healthy father-daughter relationship are at greater risk for experiencing problems in school, abusing drugs and alcohol, and participating in risky sexual behavior. In fact, adolescent girls without fathers are twice as likely to be involved in early sexual activity.

    In Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters, Dr. Meg Meeker states that no matter the age of the daughter, she takes her relationship with her father to the grave.  

    While some dads are quick to embrace having a daughter, others struggle with the father-daughter relationship.

    Here are some ways dads can embrace being a girl dad:

    • It’s no secret that girls tend to be more verbal than boys. Instead of getting annoyed with all the chatter, take time to listen to her thoughts, feelings and dreams.
    • Find something you can learn to do together or teach her a skill. 
    • Spend intentional time with her doing things she enjoys doing. Yes, tea parties, nail painting and dress-up count.
    • Daddy-daughter dates are a thing. It doesn’t have to be extravagant.
    • Encourage her uniqueness and help her know her value as a person.
    • Get involved in their education. Research suggests that daughters' academic successes are closely related to the quality of their childhood relationship with their fathers.
    • Show that you believe in her ability to handle challenges.

    The father/daughter relationship can sometimes feel very confusing, especially as your daughter enters adolescence. One minute she wants a hug from you, but the next minute she can’t stand to be in your presence. While you might be tempted to back off, don’t. From birth to adulthood, your daughter can benefit from your healthy presence in her life.

    Looking for a fun opportunity to spend time with your daughter? Don’t miss the Daddy Daughter Date night with Coach Phillip Fulmer and his daughter, Brittany Fulmer Ennen, on February 28. The event is designed for dads and their daughters (ages 7-18).

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on February 8, 2020.

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    What You Need to Know About Smartphones, Teens and Depression

    Panicking About Your Kids’ Phones? New Research Says Don’t is the title of an article in the New York Times. 

    The writer says a growing number of academicians are challenging the true impact of social media and smartphones, questioning whether too much time on devices is actually the culprit for the dramatic increase in anxiety, depression and other mental health issues, especially in teens.

    Before you jump on that bandwagon, believing the claims, you might want to hear what psychologist Jean Twenge has to say. Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State and author of numerous books including Generation Me and her most recent release, iGen: Why Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.

    In a blog for the Institute for Family Studies, Twenge calls out the NYT writer on six facts that, she claims, he ignores. 

    Twenge contends that the NYT article grossly misrepresents the research consensus on technology and mental health because the article makes it sound as if the majority of researchers have concluded that technology use isn’t related to mental health. Twenge says that is not the case. 

    “The article also misrepresents findings from a recent review of screen time and mental health studies,” writes Twenge. “The article does mention a recent review of studies on screen time and mental health by Amy Orben, who concluded that the average correlation between social media use and depressive symptoms is between .11 and .17.”

    The article cites this study as evidence that the link is small, but Twenge argues these are not small effects. Data from the CDC’s Youth Risk Survey of US High School students indicates that twice as many heavy users of electronic devices (5+ hours a day) compared to light users (1 hour a day) have attempted suicide (12% vs. 6%).

    Twenge states that the NYT article quotes experts who, without plausible evidence, dismiss the possibility that the rise of social media and smartphones might be behind the marked rise in teen depression, self-harm and suicide in recent years. The article quotes Jeff Hancock of the Stanford Social Media Lab as saying, “Why else might American kids be anxious other than telephones? How about climate change? How about income inequality? How about more student debt?”

    “The problem with this argument is that none of these factors can explain the increase in teen mental health issues that began in 2012,” Twenge writes. “First, they didn’t happen at the same time. The largest increases in income inequality occurred between 1980 and 2000… Student loan debt has been stable since 2012. The number of Americans worried a fair amount or a great deal about climate change went from 73% in 2012 to 74% in 2019.”

    Twenge contrasts this with 2013, the first year the majority of Americans owned a smartphone. By 2018, 95% of teens had access to a smartphone and 45% of them said they were online “almost constantly.”

    “The largest increase in self-harm, self-poisoning and suicide occurred among 10- to 14-year-old girls,” Twenge writes. “Hancock would have us believe that 10- to 14-year-olds are harming themselves because they are upset over income inequality or possibly someday having to pay off student loans after college - not because they are bullied online, not because they feel constant pressure to look perfect on social media, not because they can access online sites instructing them in self-harm, and not because electronic communication has replaced in-person interaction, a basic human need.”

    While Twenge does state that concern about climate change seems plausible, she asks, “How many 12-year-old-girls do you know who are cutting themselves because the planet is warming? It is much more likely they are concerned about self-image, social status, friendships and family relationships - all issues that have become fraught in the age of social media.” 

    Twenge also notes that the rise in depression, self-harm and suicide has been considerably larger among girls than boys. She contends that all of the issues listed above should impact boys and girls equally. Thus, they do not explain why the rise would be larger for girls.

    Technology use, however, does differ by gender. Girls spend more time on social media, which may be more toxic than the gaming which is more popular among boys.

    Twenge calls out the author for combining two completely separate questions - whether technology use is related to depression among individuals and whether the increase in smartphone and social media use is related to the generational increase in teen depression.

    “Even teens who don’t use technology have been affected by the shift in teen social life from in-person get-togethers to online interactions,” Twenge says. “Consider a teen who doesn’t use social media and would prefer to go out with her friend, but who will she go out with when everyone else is at home on Instagram?”

    The NYT article also points to Europe as proof that smartphones are not behind the increase in teen depression, yet the evidence shows otherwise. The study used to make the case examines adults, not teens. The World Health Organization reports increases in suicide rates around the world, with the largest increases among youth.

    The last point Twenge makes is that while the researchers claiming that technology use is unrelated to well-being said they had not taken any funding from the tech industry, one of them is currently employed and one was previously employed by the Oxford Internet Institute, which is funded by Facebook, Google and Microsoft. 

    “Parents can rest assured that their instincts to protect their kids from too much screen time are not wrong,” Twenge writes. “If kids who ate five apples a day versus one were twice as likely to attempt suicide, parents would make extremely sure their kids didn’t eat too many apples. Why should our response to technology time be any different?”

    The moral of this story is - don’t believe everything you read. Check the facts for yourself. What you don’t know can hurt you and the ones you love.

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on February 1, 2020.