Social media activist steps parents through perils of smartphones

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Collin Kartchner speaks to students at Flathead High School on Monday night, October 28. Kartchner's mission is to increase awareness of the ways social media is damaging to kids.(Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

Youth advocate, social media activist and father Collin Kartchner wants to motivate teens and parents to disconnect from anxiety-inducing social media and reconnect with others around them in healthy relationships.

“I receive hundreds of messages every day from teens, telling me of the negative impact social media has on their mental health,” Kartchner said. “When you tell them that they can break free from the toxic perfectionism, they clap, they cheer, they cry, they hug me because they are exhausted from trying to be perfect.”

Kartchner recently shared his message, encouraging teens and families to make changes in their relationships with social media and smartphones during school assemblies and parent nights in Kalispell and Whitefish.

On Tuesday Kartchner first asked an audience of parents at the Whitefish Performing Arts Center to stand up and take a pledge before he dove into the perils of social media and screen time in regard to children’s mental health, wellbeing and safety.

Pulling up the pledge on a screen, he asked them to say their own name as they recited: “I, Collin, do solemnly swear that I will not go straight home tonight after this meeting and chuck my kid’s phone into the Whitefish Lake or light their Xbox on fire,” Kartchner said. Instead, he encouraged parents to wait a week and let the information sink in before coming up with a plan that involves the whole family.

Not too long into the presentation, he had the room full of adults, and some children, hugging each other for at least eight seconds to impart the power of physical human connection.

Kartchner’s campaign to #SavetheKids from social media and screen addiction started out as an Instagram account, parodying an online culture obsessed with perfection. What shifted the direction of the social media account came after he ran into a friend and was shocked to learn her daughter had died from a drug overdose. He said the mother traced her daughter’s depression back to social media and recalled the day she gave her a smartphone was the day she lost her child, comparing the phone to a loaded gun.

“Let me just say this, No. 1, none of us had any idea we’d be dealing with this — none of this. No.2, we are the first-generation tech parents dealing with this. There are no textbooks. We have to talk to each other. Some of you have already gone through crap and hell and back with your kids and you have a lot of stories. You can help others. We have to talk to each other. And last, this is a no-shame evening,” Kartcher said.

There’s a lot at stake, he said.

“Here’s what’s at stake. We’re in the middle of a public-health crisis. There’s no other way to say this,” Kartchner said, citing various statistics on depression, suicide and self-harm rates and the effects of cumulative screen time.

He said it’s not just an issue with the constant struggle for perfection, online bullying or sexting, but the questionable content youth are subjected to in apps supposedly geared to children 12 and up in the form of pornographic links, images, videos, in addition to these apps being a place for online predators.

And he rebukes the notion that “kids today have changed” and all they do is “play video games and eat sugar.”

“No, kids haven’t changed at all. Kids have been the same for millions of years. We’ve changed. Right. We’ve changed,” Kartchner said. “We created these systems and new technology that we hand our kids. And some of it has been amazing; we’re not going to disregard that, but some of it has been horrible and it’s ruining our kids and robbing our kids of their childhood and we’re kind of sitting back and wondering, should we do something? And we need to start doing something.”

He referred again to the comparison of a smartphone as a loaded gun.

“If [you’re] not guiding and teaching them and you just threw them a phone, you’re handing them a loaded gun and you said ‘OK don’t hurt others and don’t hurt yourself,’ but that can’t fly anymore because kids are kids — they’re going to mess up,” he said, referring to emerging science that suggests the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain responsible for decision making and problem solving — isn’t fully developed until around age 25.

He reminded parents not to react by yelling, but to hug them, have a conversation and offer support.

“They need to know you’re in their corner because their whole world is crumbling at their feet and if they don’t know you’re in their corner no one is,” he said, later noting, “It’s a very stressful time to be a kid,” he said.

It’s not just getting teens off smartphones, it’s getting parents to curb their device use, too.

Kartchner said the top two requests students make when he asks them during assemblies about what they want him to tell their parents are: not to touch the phones, and for parents to look at their own screen time.

“About a year and half ago my 11-year-old daughter who was really defiant, acting up all the time at home, but at school an angel, but at home defiant, one day after yelling at her because she kept messing up hitting her sister, hitting her mom, I go ‘What’s wrong with you? Why are you so mad all the time? She said ‘why do you love your phone more than you love me?’

“That was my wake-up call. That’s all I needed. I realized ... all they see is that thing means more to my mom than I do.”

The bottom line: “No kid needs a smartphone, they really don’t,” he said.

Often Kartchner asks parents what the end goal is for giving a child a smartphone and the top reply is wanting to know where they are or the ability to get in touch with them.

“So parents if all you want to know is where your kid is, get an ankle monitor,” Kartchner said to the audience’s laughter.

He doesn’t suggest trying to juggle various monitoring apps or settings, because, he said, kids will find a way to work around them.

“If want to go to an app monitoring route – this will become your full-time job,” he cautioned.

He suggested alternative devices to smartphones that have GPS and geofencing capabilities and eliminate internet access with some offering limited texting and photo capabilities. One of them is Verizon’s Gizmo watch. Kartchner uses Relay with his children, which operates like a walkie-talkie system. For families that want a device that looks like a smartphone he suggested Gabb Wireless.

“Here’s my challenge: No. 1, make sure your kids get eight hugs a day every day — I’m talking couples, too. No. 2, parents, before you do anything, evaluate your own digital behaviors and make those changes. Make a goal to not phubb [phone snub] your kids. Grandparents, too. No. 3, find a tech family contract and start getting those ready with your kids.”

He also suggested parents collect devices before bedtime and silence them or turn them off.

“Your kids are going to freak — ‘but I listen to music before bed,’ buy a Walkman. ‘But I use it for an alarm clock dad,’ buy an alarm clock — they still make them,” Kartchner said.

Then, he suggested setting aside one day a week as a “no tech day.”

And finally, he advised, if children or families are really struggling and relationships are severely strained, seek professional medical help from a therapist or doctor.

“It’s time we all finally fall out of love with our devices and in love with each other because our kids are watching. We need to do this,” he said.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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