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Dr. Leonard Sax talks to Harford residents about how excessive social media, video games can harm youths

Dr. Leonard Sax, author, physician and psychologist, addresses Harford County parents during his recent “Instagram Ate My Daughter, My Son Won’t Stop Playing Fortnite, What Can I Do?” presentation at Bel Air High School.
Dr. Leonard Sax, author, physician and psychologist, addresses Harford County parents during his recent “Instagram Ate My Daughter, My Son Won’t Stop Playing Fortnite, What Can I Do?” presentation at Bel Air High School. (David Anderson/The Aegis / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Dr. Leonard Sax, a physician, psychologist, speaker and author of four books on parenting and child development, pointed out a number of issues he sees as causes for excessive use of electronic media — social media, video games and the internet — by American youths during a recent presentation for Harford County parents.

Sax cited issues that have been happening in the United States over decades, such as the rise of music, television shows and video games that glorify violence, children disrespecting their parents, objectification of women and criminal activity.

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“The bonds across generations have been broken,” Sax said during his presentation, "Instagram Ate My Daughter, My Son Won’t Stop Playing Fortnite, What Can I Do?” last Thursday at Bel Air High School.

He spoke to about 200 people, mostly adult parents and other caregivers, along with some youths, gathered in the school auditorium. The presentation was put on by the Harford County Office of Drug Control Policy, part of the Department of Community Services, in cooperation with the Parent Academy, a program of Harford County Public Schools.

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Sax took on a number of titles in popular culture, which he said was nurturing in the past but is “now toxic for children and teenagers.” His targets for critique ranged from the long-running Fox animated sitcom “The Simpsons,” with its portrayal of family patriarch Homer Simpson as the stereotypical clueless sitcom dad more interested in watching TV and drinking beer than raising his children, to the recent Grammy-winning hit song “This is America” by Childish Gambino. Gambino, a stage name for actor Donald Glover, presents a nihilistic vision of 21st-Century America awash in crass materialism, juxtaposed with racism and random violence such as mass shootings.

Sax said American culture once encouraged children and teenagers to spend time with adults of a range of ages — typically in separate groups of males and females — which helped young people learn skills from their elders as well as community values and traditions.

That does not happen today, according to Sax, as young people spend much of their free time socializing with each other, in a world of youth culture separate from adults, and are physically isolated from their peers. Many youths are alone in their rooms scrolling through social media feeds seeing friends who appear to have better lives, based on their posts and photos, or spending hours playing video games that reward killing other characters in the game.

Sax presented data that show how excessive use of social media and video games can harm youths’ physical, psychological and moral development, and he encouraged parents to limit how much time their teens spend on their smartphones and playing video games. He listed a number of apps that allow parents to monitor content on their children’s phones, and to remain strong when their kids lash out against restrictions.

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“There will be times that your daughter or son is angry at you and upset with you, and may even say ‘I hate you,’” Sax said. “It’s part of your job; you have to have the courage to do the right thing.”

Post-event gathering

Sax encouraged parents to read an electronic handout for the presentation, which is online at http://leonardsax.com/harford.pdf. The document includes links to research and articles written by Sax and other scholars, hims recommendations on strict age and time limits for using electronic media as well as the names of monitoring apps.

He chatted with attendees after the presentation and signed copies of his books; he has had four books published since 2005, including “Why Gender Matters,” “Boys Adrift,” “Girls on the Edge” and “The Collapse of Parenting.”

People could also talk with representatives of the Office of Drug Control Policy and the Parent Academy. Silvana Bowker, project manager with the county’s Department of Community Services, coordinated the presentation and said it ties in with National Recovery Month. The county government and its multiple community partners are sponsoring campaigns throughout September to let people know it is possible to recover from and live life free of drug addiction.

“Our hope is that parents are able to learn about social media and video games and how to protect their children’s mental health as well,” Bowker said.

Parents react

Bel Air resident Deanna Windle chatted with Sax after the event and picked up copies of several of his books. The mother of three, whose children are in elementary and high school, said she took lots of notes during the presentation.

Windle said she learned about the impact of violent video games as well as social media and how it can skew girls’ perceptions about the importance of their looks.

“It’s all about how they look instead of trying to be their best selves,” she said.

Windle described time spent together with her family as a “very precious” commodity, as all three of her children are swimmers and each attends practice at a different location. Sax had emphasized the value of regular family dinners, when parents and children can talk with each other.

Aisha Barry, of Joppatowne, attended with her daughter, Kadiatu, and son, Ibrahim, both of whom are 13 years old and in the eighth grade at Magnolia Middle School.

“I’m glad I came,” Barry said. “I got a lot of information that is useful.”

Kadiatu said she does use Instagram, primarily to keep up with her friends; she stressed that her page is private and is not followed by anybody she does not know. Ibrahim said he plays the shooting game Fortnite online with his friends.

Barry said her children consume little electronic entertainment during the week, but “they make it up over the weekend.”

Ibrahim said he would prefer to spend more time outside, playing sports with his friends; his mother said he could do that, but stressed “I just have to know where you are and who you’re hanging with.”

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