Picture this: It’s a weekend afternoon and there is nothing you need to do. You want to go somewhere — perhaps to people-watch, shop, take a walk, get some fresh air, hang out with friends or just take a break from social media. What places come to mind as options?

Do you feel like you have enough places to go outside of school, work and extracurricular activities where you can just hang out?

In the Opinion column “The Internet Is a Wasteland, So Give Kids Better Places to Go,” Michelle Goldberg writes about the psychological effects of technology on children and teens and how having physical places to go — parks, food courts, movie theaters, even video arcades — could help keep them offline. She cites a recent book about this topic by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt:

In “The Anxious Generation,” Haidt argues that while kids are under-protected on the internet, they’re over-protected in the real world, and that these two trends work in tandem. For a whole host of reasons — parental fear, overzealous child welfare departments, car-centric city planning — kids generally have a lot less freedom and independence than their parents did. Sitting at home in front of screens may keep them safe from certain physical harms, but it leaves them more vulnerable to psychological ones.

Reading Haidt’s book, I kept thinking of a park in Paris’s Les Halles district where adults aren’t allowed, and how much easier it would be to keep kids off the internet if there were similar parks scattered around American cities and towns. I would much rather have my own children, who are 9 and 11, roaming the neighborhood than spending hours interacting with friends remotely on apps like Roblox.

But it’s hard to make them go outside when there are no other kids around. One of my favorite days of the year is my Brooklyn neighborhood’s block party, when the street is closed to traffic and the kids play in packs, most ignored by their tipsy parents. It demonstrates how the right physical environment can encourage offscreen socializing.

As I was finishing “The Anxious Generation,” a book that partly overlaps with it arrived in the mail: “Family Unfriendly: How Our Culture Made Raising Kids Much Harder Than It Needs to Be.” The author, Timothy P. Carney, is a conservative Catholic father of six who wants to encourage other people to have lots of kids. He and I agree about very little, but we’re in complete accord about the need for communities to be “kid-walkable and kid-bikeable” so that children will have more real-world autonomy. Carney cites a 2023 paper from The Journal of Pediatrics concluding that a “primary cause of the rise in mental disorders is a decline over decades in opportunities for children and teens to play, roam and engage in other activities independent of direct oversight and control by adults.”

If we want to start getting kids offline, we need to give them better places to go instead.

Students, read the entire column and then tell us:

  • What do you think about the idea that “the right physical environment can encourage offscreen socializing”? Have you ever seen evidence of this? Describe your experience with a place or places where you weren’t using your phone much or perhaps even at all. If you’ve never had this experience, what do you think it would take for it to happen?

  • What do you think are some of the biggest obstacles to leaving your home and staying off your phone? Do they include transportation, safety, cost or simply convincing friends to come along? Perhaps you don’t have a place to go where you’re treated with respect? Maybe it’s something else?

  • To what degree do you believe that having more places to go would help teens to take breaks from technology? Why?

  • The column states that teens today most likely have less freedom and independence than their parents did when they were teens. Do you think that’s true for you? What examples can you give of differences in the rules, expectations, privileges and degrees of privacy you have versus the ones your parents had when they were your age? How do you feel about this?

  • Do you think there is a connection between what Ms. Goldberg calls “real-world autonomy” and mental well-being? Share your thoughts on teenage independence, freedom, trust, responsibility and rules. What do you wish adults knew or did differently?

  • If you were asked to help create more places for teens to be together in person, what would you suggest? What qualities would those places have? Why would you give them those qualities?

  • Do you have any other ideas about how we as a society can address the problems described in the column? What are your suggestions?

Students 13 and older in the United States and Britain, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public and may appear in print.

Find more Student Opinion questions here. Teachers, check out this guide to learn how you can incorporate these prompts into your classroom.

Shannon Doyne

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