Protecting Our Children’s Mental Health: A Call to Action

Leigh Kellogg
7 min readJul 9, 2024




I recently finished reading Jonathan Haidt’s, The Anxious Generation. As both a parent and someone deeply invested in our children and the future of this country, I highly recommend giving it a read. The book is both enlightening and concerning. Haidt, a social psychologist and New York University professor, successfully lays out the data and story driving poor mental health outcomes for children. This situation is reminiscent of the early days when we first realized that, despite appearing “cool,” cigarettes were literal poison and their harmful effects were significantly under-communicated and only moderately understood.

There are two main variables driving poor mental health outcomes for our kids.

1) High levels of screen time

2) Not enough unsupervised free play


While working on this article, I showed my ten-year-old son some of the data from Haidt’s book. I’ve told him countless times that screen time must be limited and that digital shorts and reels aren’t good for him. He always rolls his eyes. But when he saw the charts, he was genuinely shocked. He thanked me for showing him and said it made him understand the problem much more deeply. The great thing about these problems is that generally, they don’t cost anything to fix. However, they do require a connected effort and the principle that “we’re all in this together.”

I live on a major road that leads to the local middle school. Every morning and afternoon, I see kids walking back and forth from school, heads down, silently staring into their phones instead of engaging with the world around them. I can’t help but wonder how many laughs, revelations, connections, and moments are missed because they are trapped between the real world and the digital one captured in their devices.

The chart below shows the sharp increase of depressive episodes that began in the 2010’s.


As you can see, instances of depressive episodes take a dramatic upward turn. Haidt explains that this coincides with the launch of apps like Instagram and psychological techniques built into algorithms (i.e., retweeting, liking, and sharing) designed to capture increased attention to drive advertiser profit. Along with increases in depressive disorders, we see increased prevalence in anxiety and self-harm.



As an adult, I can personally attest to experiencing anxiety and addictive behaviors created by these apps. How much more might a 13-year-old, whose brain is still developing, experience? We can’t expect them to moderate themselves. It’s unrealistic, and the apps work hard to prevent this by delivering constant tiny dopamine doses and rewards to encourage continued use.

The drivers of negative effects for girls and boys are very different. For girls, apps like Instagram create a comparative dystopia. This kind of physical comparison during puberty is extremely damaging to mental health, leading to significant increases in ER visits for self-harm among girls aged 10–19.


For boys, the driver isn’t as clear as it is for girls, but the negative impacts are still visible. Young boys seem to be suffering from a combination of variables, including wide access to pornography and large amounts of time spent playing video games and online versus having real-life experiences. This has a stunting effect on their feelings of ability and confidence, increasing hopelessness and rates of suicide.



The other major problem driving cause for concern is a lack of unsupervised free play. Since the 1980’s outdoor play has decreased dramatically.


This is tough. As a millennial parent, I’ve been trained to believe the real world is filled with predators. And yes, there are definitely dangerous people in the world. However, many of these predators are no longer overtly driving white vans offering kids candy. Now, they are anonymous handles on Instagram liking and commenting on your kid’s latest post or sliding into their DMs. Ew.

In an effort to keep our kids safe, we give them phones and trackers to protect them in the real world, but this opens them up to a vast digital world with algorithms that negatively impact their sleep, confidence, and real-life experiences. To me, these algorithms are the real predators.

The concept of freedom and independence is complicated. It’s worrisome for parents to let kids as young as eight roam around the neighborhood. I’ve struggled with it myself and seen it as a larger societal challenge because we’ve collectively been trained to protect by monitoring.

I remember when my son started third grade. With this new age, we gave him the privilege of walking from the bus to the house by himself, a distance of roughly 200 yards. This felt like a reasonable way to encourage some independence and autonomy for my eight-year-old. However, two parents reached out, asking if it was okay for him to walk alone. While I understood and appreciated their concern, it made me wonder if our definition of “safe” is too stringent.

Do you remember when you were 10? I do. It was the summer of 1993. My best friend Jenny and I ran around our neighborhood all summer from 9 am until the streetlights came on. We had no watches or phones, just the freedom to explore and play. We played in the creek behind her house, went swimming, had bike races, and turned the woods into our magical palace. These experiences were formative, creating growth and confidence, and I want the same for my son.

Unfortunately, most of his friends are in aftercare or team practices, and no one is at the park anymore. Kids are constantly managed and supervised by teachers, volunteers, and coaches. Rarely do they solve problems for themselves. I often find myself functioning as an executive calendar admin for my son, setting up play times with friends. Can we just send them outside?


At the end of the book, Haidt suggests real steps to combat these negative effects.

  1. No smartphones before high school
  2. No social media until 16
  3. Advocate for phone free schools
  4. Give more independence, free play, and responsibility in the real world

I love that he provides this tactical guidance in addition to providing so much compelling research to demonstrate the problem. We all benefit from seeing the actual steps we can take to make change.

First, we must do this together. This only works in numbers. If my child is the only one without a phone or social media, he feels isolated and left out. If even 30% of his friends are without it, it’s no big deal.

If you feel compelled by what the research says and want to take steps, consider the following:

  1. Commit to no personal smartphone or iPad for your kid(s) before high school. Maybe get a Gizmo watch, an Apple watch or a dumb phone instead. This provides a way to communicate with your child without the broad access that an iPhone or iPad provides.
  2. Say no social media until age 16. This is hard, but so beneficial. Many young kids with social media now wish they didn’t have it. If they already have it, take it away. The data is clear: it’s harmful, and if removed at scale, it’s less awful.
  3. Send a note to the superintendent, the school board, and your school’s principal. Tell them about the new data on the harms of screens. Link them to and request that they move toward phone free schools.
  4. Take the plunge and send your kid(s) outside. Send them to a park. If other kids are there, they’re safer in numbers. Kids don’t want to play alone. Let’s make the shift!!

Despite the concerning trends, I’m grateful this information is spreading. It feels like we are on the brink of significant change. Although I sometimes feel saddened by the division in our country, I am hopeful this is an issue we can all support and rally around. We have a real opportunity to come together as a community to shift these trends. Our kids deserve it. I hope you feel encouraged and inclined to take action with me.



Leigh Kellogg

Passions include momming, learning, making, and writing. Life motto: Question everything. Website: Social: