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Mental Health, Exploitation, and More: What Tech is Doing to Our Kids and Why Parents Need to Know

Clayton Cranford talks about what parents need to know about children and technology.

Nobody thinks it could happen to their family. But assuming it couldn’t happen to you is the worst mistake you can make. We all have blind spots when it comes out our loved ones being in danger because we don’t want to believe it could happen. But all children are affected by technology, and even trained educators make mistakes. If you assume nothing will happen to your kid or that they’re too smart to get involved in something dangerous, you’re leaving them vulnerable.


See Educating Teens About Technology is Necessary with Clayton Cranford for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.

Clayton Cranford is the founder of Cyber Safety Cop, an organization dedicated to educating students and parents about the risks of technology and how they can be safer online. He is a retired sergeant from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, where he spent a large portion of his twenty-year career working directly with students and their parents as a school resource officer. Now he is one of the United States’ leading educators on social media, child safety, teen drug abuse prevention, and behavioral threat assessments. He is also the author of the definitive parent guide to online safety for kids, Parenting in the Digital World.

The Importance of Technology Education for Children and Parents

Clayton spent much of his career with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department working as a school resource officer. He was the only resource officer for 14,000 students in the city of Rancho Santa Margarita. 2012 is the year where teens moved from mostly flip phones to smartphones, and through watching that transition, Clayton got a first-hand look at how technology is affecting children.

A common story was a good kid who just made a bad choice and the parents had no idea what was happening. Some of the cases were heartbreaking, and since he had two sons who were in middle school at the time, they were also personal. Parents asked him for guidance in picking up the pieces of a situation that couldn’t be undone. But Clayton didn’t just want to pick up the pieces. He wanted to give parents tools to be effective parents in a digital world and educate kids on the choices they’re making and how to be safer. That’s why he now travels all over the country speaking to parents and students of all ages.

There are things that parents can do to absolutely make a difference.

Clayton Cranford

Crisis on the First Day

Clayton’s turning point moment was literally his first day as a school resource officer. He walked into an intermediate school with over a thousand students. The person at the front desk, slightly hysterical, said they were so glad he was here and he already had a student waiting in his office.

In his office, along with a counselor, was a crying twelve-year-old girl. Over the summer, her then-sixth-grader boyfriend asked her to send him a nude image, which is what kids did to prove they were in a committed relationship. She did. As all sixth-grade relationships do, it eventually ended. But an image goes on forever. In the weeks leading up to her first day of seventh grade, she got multiple messages from male classmates saying they had that image of her and she should send them some too.

Imagine being twelve years old and walking into your first day of seventh grade knowing that most of your classmates have a nude photo of you. The fact that she got out of bed that morning was incredibly brave. Clayton found her with her life imploding.

The next step was calling all those boys into the office, making them delete the image, and getting school discipline involved. But the real impression was when he sat down with the girl’s mom and she asked how to stop this from happening again. It was his first day on the job. Clayton didn’t have answers. But he realized that parents need answers, not just to keep it from happening again but to keep it from happening ever. There’s no such thing as 100% safe, but parents can do a lot.

[Online safety] is something that we just can’t ignore anymore. If we do, we’re doing it at our children’s peril.

Clayton Cranford

Children and Technology is a Mental Health Crisis

Technology has changed our kids. Its effects are strong, and we as parents are facilitating it – kids aren’t saving up to buy their own phones, parents are buying them for them. Gen Z, the generation now in college, were raised radically different than Clayton’s generation or his parents’ generation. The books The Anxious Generation by Jonathan Haidt and iGen by Jean M. Twenge explain how tech has fundamentally changed our children.

Technology is fundamentally changing children, especially when they start using it at a young age.

Every year, students in public schools are given a survey with questions asking if in the last thirty days they smoked a cigarette, felt lonely, and many other things. This self-reported data goes back a long way. Smartphones were introduced in 2010, and around 2012 was a big shift in students’ technology use – 80% of teens ended up with smartphones. And the self-reporting data shows a huge upswing in rates of anxiety and depression at the same time. In the past, about 5% of boys and 10-12% of girls reported depression. After the switch to smartphones, reported depression rates went up 161%.

There have also been huge increases in non-suicidal self-injury, which is something Clayton didn’t even know about until he started as a school resource officer. Harming themselves as a way to deal with emotions has increased 188% for girls and 49% for boys since 2010.

No kids are unaffected. All kids on social media are affected. It’s changing the way they socialize.

Clayton Cranford

Parents Must Get Involved

You may think that talking about self-harm is unusual, but children do it a lot on social media. In one of Clayton’s schools, a girl posted graphic photos of her slashed inner forearms on Instagram. Other kids at school saw it and showed it to Clayton. The school counselor determined she wasn’t at risk to kill herself, but was harming herself because of anxiety and depression.

He called the girl’s mom and prepared her for what was going to happen. But he still remembers the gasp of horror and despair when the girl pulled up her sleeves and her mom saw the injuries. The scars don’t go away. Not just the scars on the girl’s arm, but the metaphorical ones on the parent’s soul of feeling like she failed her child. She felt like she should have known what was going on with her daughter – and if she’d looked at her kid’s Instagram for a minute, she would have.

What would it take to get apathetic parents involved? When enough kids attempt or commit suicide, parents will eventually say we need to stop this. But ideally we can make changes before more kids die. Parents can take steps now.

Parents Must Take Action

Some parents get their small children phones because all the other kids in their class have one. Even if they know the effects of technology on children, they may decide not being ostracized is more important. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The other side of this scenario would be parents forming a parent group and all agreeing that their kids won’t get phones until middle school and won’t get smartphones until high school. Parents can do that.

A lot of parents of young kids who don’t yet have phones feel this is doable because they don’t have anything at stake. But for those whose kids already have phones, they feel like it’s much harder to take it back. But if you look at parents whose children were victims of online sexual exploitation, attempted suicide, or hurt themselves, they have no problems taking it away. They know their child’s health and safety are more important than connecting with their friends on Snapchat.

We can turn this mental health problem around with our kids.

Clayton Cranford

That’s really the attitude we need to combat this. The problems start with the introduction of social media on the devices in our kids; lives. It’s fundamentally one of the huge problems we have and the biggest hurdle to get over.

Why Social Media Causes Mental Health Problems

This particular crisis of children and technology starts early, with very young kids. A lot of parents use devices to help their kids regulate their emotions. A child is acting out, being loud, or crying, you give them an iPad, and now they’re fine. Clayton gets it. As a parent, you’re overwhelmed, and if you could give your child something to pacify them, why wouldn’t you? He’s sure his dad in the late 1970s would have loved to give Clayton and his siblings iPads on road trips. It just wasn’t an option back then.

The problem with using devices to regulate emotions is it’s not regulating anything. Screens just distract children from their emotions. Then, as teenagers, they start feeling negative emotions like anxiety, fear, and shame. All of these emotions are important. You do something wrong, you feel shame, and you don’t do it again. You feel bad that you didn’t do well on a test so you study more next time. These are all good.

But as a society, we’ve somehow decided that all negative emotions are bad and we should never feel them. So not only do children never learn to regulate their emotions, they think that they shouldn’t be feeling anything negative, and the only response they have available is to get in front of a screen to distract from those emotions. When they are in a situation where they can’t ignore the feeling with screens, or if it’s too strong for distraction, they end up overwhelmed and unable to cope.

We’re giving these devices to the kids to sublimate them, to pacify them, but really what’s happening here is that our children are never learning to deal with their emotions.

Clayton Cranford

Why It’s Worse for Girls

This crisis of children and technology is worse for girls, for several reasons. One is social comparison. Girls tend to compare themselves to others, especially when going through puberty. Puberty is an awkward time. And if the people you’re comparing yourself to are filtered and Photoshopped to perfection on social media, it’s easy to think, “I don’t look like that, but I need to.” It drives a lot of anxiety. Just look at the number of young girls, as young as eight years old, buying skincare.

Another aspect is predation. Girls are more likely to be preyed on online. That’s not to say boys are immune – in fact, there’s a very popular scam targeting teen boys and young men through sexual exploitation. But adult predators tend to be more likely to go after girls. And, as happened to the twelve-year-old on Clayton’s first day as a school resource officer, girls are much more likely to have their intimate photos shared by their peers.

Self-reporting data also shows a decline in friendship. In 2011, almost 80% of students said they had close friends. Now that number is less than 65%. Close, meaningful friendships are important for mental health. But technology has changed how children socialize. Instead of meaningful face-to-face relationships, they now have more, less close online friends.

Parents can Undo the Damage Technology Does to Children

This is very complicated. There’s a lot going on, and it’s all aggregated to rewire our children’s brains. But we can undo it. It won’t happen immediately, but parents can undo this damage.

Clayton’s biggest fear is that parents will stay on the sidelines. If people continue to think it won’t happen to their kid, they’re overlooking the signs that it most definitely can. And if that happens, we won’t see real change until the child suicide rate is so high that it can’t be ignored. Clayton doesn’t want it to get to the point where multiple children in a school are attempting or committing suicide before parents stand up and say something has to change. We can make changes now, before it does happen to our kids.

Gen Z Children and Technology

Gen Z are the children born between 1997 and 2004-2005. They got smartphones and social media while they were going through puberty, while Millennials didn’t. We’re seeing every new generation get introduced to social media at earlier ages, which makes mental health outcomes worse. Gen Z is just the first. And it’s not just an American problem. We see the same results in South Korea, the UK, Germany, and Australia. Every country where young children are exposed to this technology has similar outcomes.

There is a generational difference in parenting. Clayton’s parents’ generation were pretty hands-off. As a teen, Clayton and his friend would get in the car and go camping. His parents knew they were camping somewhere, but they didn’t know where, and they didn’t have phones to call. That’s changed radically. We’ve gone from hands-off parenting to fear-based helicopter parenting or “bulldozer” parenting where we push all obstacles out of our child’s way. Couple that with technology, and our children don’t know how to deal with adversity.

When Clayton was young, if you wanted to go on a date, you had to look someone in the face and ask them out. It caused anxiety that people had to manage, and they had to live with the outcome. Kids need to get experience in these kinds of real-life situations. When they’re young and in school, it’s relatively safe to crash and burn. But these days kids are resorting to online relationships with zero stakes. And with AI boyfriends and girlfriends emerging, they can have a “partner” who never says no or disagrees. They never learn to put their wants aside for a relationship, how to compromise, or how to find a solution when you disagree. You can’t have a successful marriage without those skills.

Children Have Technology Because Parents Are Scared

To some degree, parenting style has made the challenges that children face with technology worse. But ironically, many parents are giving their children phones at an early age because they’re scared.

Clayton often teaches cyber safety for groups of kindergarten through third grade students. When he asks them to raise their hands if they have a phone, about half of the hands usually go up. When he talks to parents, he asks why they’re giving their seven-year-old a phone. And the answer is because they’re afraid. They want to be able to contact their child any time during the day for their safety.

I’m asking parents, why are you giving your kid, your first grader, a phone? And they’re afraid.

Clayton Cranford

If you’re taking your child to school and picking them up after, why do they need a phone in that situation? They’re not out wandering, and if you need to talk to your child, you can call the office and they’ll find your kid for you.

When Clayton brings this up to parents, they always say one of two things: They’re worried about abduction or about school shootings. But is that really where parents should be focusing their concern? Clayton argues that despite the dramatic and heart-wrenching stories you read in the news, these concerns that lead parents to give technology to their children aren’t really what they should be worried about.

The Real Concern with Children and Technology

Out of 72 million children in the United States, only about 100 children are abducted by strangers every year. Most abductions are committed by family members. And though school shootings are in the news, over the last twenty years, only about 215 children are killed or injured per year in a school shooting. Anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide are tens of thousands of percent more likely to happen to your child.

That’s not to say these events don’t happen. They do, and they’re devastating, and the grief is real. But for the average family, your child is more likely to be injured, sexually abused, or murdered at home than at school or outside. If you’re not the kind of parent who would do that, you don’t have much to worry about. Parents are giving children devices to help with something highly unlikely, while those same devices are doing significant damage.

It’s not just mental health, although we’ve spent quite a bit of time already talking about those consequences. But giving kids devices opens up a world that wasn’t previously available. And that can open them up to exploitation and being victimized in ways that wouldn’t have been available otherwise. These concerns are where parents should really be focused.

How to Undo the Damage

Technology is changing our children, and often not for the better. But parents can take steps to protect their kids. In a perfect world, parents who haven’t given their kids a phone or social media yet shouldn’t get them one until high school. If they have a legitimate reason to have one, get them a flip phone, an Apple watch, or something else where they can communicate but not have access to apps, a camera, or the internet.

If your child has a legitimate need for a phone, consider a flip phone or a smartwatch that lets them communicate without access to social media or the internet.

Even though kids can have smartphones in high school, Clayton recommends not giving them social media until they’re at least sixteen. Although that can be a tough sell in high school. If you give your child a smartphone, you must add an app to regulate screen time. The amount of time they spend on their devices affects their mental health. And these apps will also alert you to anything dangerous.

The parental control app Cyber Safety Cop recommends is OurPact. Everyone at the company are parents, and the app works on iPhones, which some other options don’t very well. It will even grab screenshots of what your kid is doing on their phone, run it through databases to look for problematic words, and alert you if there’s an issue. Something like this would have saved a lot of kids Clayton knows. As soon as someone asked these children for nudes, their parents could have been alerted.

Other Technology Limits for Children

During the school day, kids shouldn’t be on their phones at all. In a perfect world, all schools would have a policy of no phones out bell to bell. But if your child is using OurPact, you can shut down everything but phone calls and texts during the school day.

Children shouldn’t have technology in their bedrooms, either. If you put an Xbox in your child’s room, statistically their play time will increase by over 50%. Keep all devices in public areas of the house where you can drop by. Especially with smartphones, devices in bedrooms increases anxiety. It also increases the likelihood of doing something inappropriate. Sending nudes and looking at porn all go up after 11pm. Keeping devices out of the bedroom is an easy fix.

Parents should also talk to their children about technology. Clayton’s book Parenting in the Digital World walks you through how to talk to your kids about this stuff. The best way to talk about it is counter-intuitive for most parents. The default way to talk to kids about dangerous things is to issue commands. But when your child has a phone, they don’t have to listen to you. They have options regardless of what you want. You need to recruit your child to be on your side.

When you give your kid a phone, they have options. They don’t have to listen to you.

Clayton Cranford

Clayton’s favorite tools come from when he was a hostage negotiator. You can’t solve a hostage situation by giving commands. They have options that don’t require listening to you. Instead, you do it by building rapport, understanding where they’re coming for, and listening. Once they feel you’re trying to understand them, they open up. Then you can start exploring options to figure it out together.

It CAN Happen to Your Child

“This can’t happen to my kid!” Many parents say it, but, to use the cliché, it’s famous last words. Every parent who has been to one of Clayton’s presentations has come out of it saying they’re glad there was no internet when they were a kid. If you think you couldn’t have done a good job managing technology as a kid, why do you think your children can? They’re just you with the internet.

You can’t change your kid into a good decision-maker. You absolutely can nudge them towards making better choices. But a child’s brain isn’t fully developed, especially the part that governs decision-making. The prefrontal context, which tells you something is a bad idea, doesn’t kick in until your child is in their twenties.

You can’t change a kid into a good decision-maker. … You can nudge them towards making better choices, but their prefrontal cortex is not fully developed.

Clayton Cranford

Clayton has seen teens doing things casually online that they never would do face-to-face. Technology removes a sense of consequence. The real world and the online world feel different, so children feel like they can act differently. They’re not using the rational, decision-making parts of their brain. They’re thinking with their emotional brain, so they gravitate towards things that feel good and exciting. That’s why they take risks, and why you can look back at what you did as a child and wonder why you did that.

Online Risks and Real Life Risks are the Same

When Clayton does his presentation for students, he lays out a scenario for them. He asks them to imagine they’re at a fast food restaurant getting a hamburger. An adult man they’ve never met walks up and starts talking to them. He asks their name, where they good to school, and if he can see pictures of them with their friends. Clayton asks the students if any of them are going along with that, and they all say no. They know they shouldn’t be giving that information out to strangers.

But what about online? Clayton asks kids how many followers they have, and the average middle schooler has 300. And they admit that between 80% and 90% of their followers are people they don’t know. They choose to let these followers in based on that they look like someone they know or someone their age, or if they follow someone else they know. But the same things these children are sharing on their social media to followers who are 80% strangers are the same thing they knew not to share with a stranger at a fast food restaurant.

All the kids agree that it doesn’t make sense and that kids are getting hurt. But when they’re online, they’re thinking it could never happen to them. This is normal. All parents would have done the same thing if there was technology when they were children. But the consequences are really horrible. And parents often aren’t finding out until their child’s life implodes.

Parents Can Manage The Risks

Technology poses a lot of risks to children, but parents can manage it. They just have to think differently based on what’s happening. If they’re able to do this before their child has a phone, it’s easier. But if your kid already has a phone, it’s not the end of the world.

Don’t try to do everything at once. Take baby steps. Start by getting a parental control software like OurPact. You can also sign up for the Cyber Safety Cop newsletter to stay informed. And if any of these things are struggles, you can absolutely reach out for help.

Learn more about Cyber Safety Cop at cybersafetycop.com. They have a fun of free stuff, including handouts for parents and worksheets for kids. You can also find out how to bring Clayton or another instructor to your child’s school. You can contact Clayton directly by email at [email protected] for more info.

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