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We are growing less thrilled with social media’s influence on Americans as time goes on. Sure, it has many invaluable and positive aspects, but we’ve seen just as much of the unpleasant side as well. Anyone with a Facebook, Twitter or other networking app is familiar with the ugly side of anonymous online postings. And too often, we’ve experienced meals with other diners who are more devoted to reading their hand-held devices than to their in-person dinner companions. There’s actually a name for that annoying habit people have of checking text messages while talking to someone who is physically present — it’s called “phubbing,” short for phone-snubbing.

In 2019, the average American adult spends nearly four hours every day on a mobile device. That’s bad, but even worse, teenagers are spending closer to nine hours a day using online media. According to Pew Research, our teens are spending an alarming amount of that screen time playing video games — 97% of teen boys and 83% of girls are gaming online. For years, many parents and physicians have been raising concerns about the potentially harmful effects of so much online gaming. Their concerns were just validated by the World Health Organization (WHO).

On May 25, the WHO officially voted to include “gaming disorder” as a behavorial addiction in its latest edition of the “International Classification of Diseases.” Many of the behaviors exhibited by frequent gamers are similar to symptoms displayed by other types of addicts, such as spending excessive time thinking about the game even when not playing, and not being able to stop when playing, even to the point it interferes in one’s life.

If that information isn’t enough to make you insist your kids put down their phones, turn off their laptops, and engage in some type of physical activity, then yesterday’s Wall Street Journal article, “Discord, Where Teens Rule and Parents Fear to Tread” by Julie Jargon, might convince you.

Discord is a video chat service that allows online users to talk to other gamers — either friends or total strangers. Jargon says if your teens are playing video games, they’re probably familiar with Discord. The free service, which became popular with the rise of online games such as Fortnite, has more than 250 million registered users who exchange 850 million messages every day. While gaming is not the only discussion option on the site, it’s the biggest. And the most problematic.

Private groups, or servers, can be created by anyone. But these groups, usually consisting of teenage boys, often contain conversations filled with “racial slurs, sexist comments, politically incorrect memes and game-shaming are prevalent.” Crudeness and rudeness abound on the internet, but on many groups within Discord, unsupervised teens are virtually running amok. A new level of awfulness that includes bullying, profanity and hate speech can quickly turn a chat server into a virtual “Lord of the Flies.”

While one is supposed to be at least 13 to join Discord, the site doesn’t check that. Jargon calls the virtual hangout “a predominately adolescent-male playground.” One mother noted that when her son is online, the swearing is so bad she has to go out to her car to speak on the phone. “The going sentence between these kids is, ‘Go kill yourself,’” she says.

Adam Pletter, a child psychologist in Maryland, says he estimates 20% of his gamer patients say they’ve been harassed on Discord. The service’s administrators say it’s the responsibility of parents to monitor their children’s activities when they’re on Discord, just as mom and dad could be doing with any internet site. That is true. However, we believe Discord could be more proactive in ensuring young teens and children are only able to access age-appropriate servers. Administrators also could play a more active role in discouraging and banning hate speech and bullying.

Ultimately, it is up to mom and dad to monitor what their kids are doing on the internet. Parents also should limit online time. Here’s a novel idea — send the kids outside to play. We hear in the days before the internet, parents used to do that regularly.

— Robin Beres

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