Menlo Park native David Klein has spent the last decade helping young athletes succeed in baseball through the Menlo Legends program and camp, and during several years as a baseball coach at Menlo-Atherton High School.
Klein, 32, has worked with thousands of local kids and teens – about 5,000 over the years, he estimates. And they've done well. Almost 50 have gone pro. Just this year, the first athlete he worked with has made it to the major leagues: Zac Grotz, a 26-year-old from San Mateo and pitcher for the Seattle Mariners.
But over the last few years, Klein has noticed a shift among the youth he spends his days coaching. They've become quieter than they used to be, and very focused on school – not necessarily bad things, he notes – but they also seem, in general, stressed out and anxious.
"There was an inability to navigate certain social situations," he explains.
An M-A grad who grew up in Menlo Park himself, he senses a difference between these kids' experience and the childhood he spent, not too long ago, enjoying days outside with friends, riding bikes around town, and getting into mischief.
Now, he says, "I drive around town almost daily. You can't find the kids anymore."
So he set out to learn why.
After interviewing more than 40 of the athletes he worked with and their parents, some patterns became clear.
The students he worked with, he realized, were spending somewhere between six and 10 hours a day on their phones.
"I started to put some pieces together," he says. Talking to other coaches, he learned that his observations were not unique to him.
A personal experience also brought home the reality of the mental health crisis among young people. After meeting with a teenage family friend in Detroit who said that two of her good friends had died by suicide, Klein said he decided to dedicate his work to helping teens develop "intentional tech-usage habits so they can act more like kids again."
He dove headfirst into researching the digital wellness field, then identified a path he believes can help young teens navigate the minefields of digital distraction: helping them feel more socially connected, embrace unstructured free time, "swap out video games for in-person activities" and "do the things that make them feel good and alive."
Immersing himself in the field, he says, he noticed that there were many awareness-based programs warning how bad tech can be for kids, but most of it targeted parents. There weren't many that focused on solutions, or anything that engaged young people directly to teach them about how to use tech intentionally, he notes.
After doing a significant amount of survey work, he says, he created a pilot overnight program with some of the athletes he had worked with in the Legends baseball program, inviting thirteen 13- to 15-year-old boys out to Little Basin in the Santa Cruz Mountains for a two-night, three-day retreat.
The program showed early signs of success: two weeks after the retreat, he says, 11 of 13 parents said they saw a noticeable difference in their child's tech interactions.
While the retreat was tech-free, it involved more than just wresting phones away from the teens for a few days and hoping they'd discover on their own the joys of being unplugged in a beautiful place – though the setting in the coastal redwoods likely didn't hurt.
Building on that pilot program, he's developed a curriculum for outdoor experiences focused on "experiential learning," that offer hands-on tools, strategies and methods the teens can call upon after camp to develop habits around being offline, all without being too preachy, he says.
He sees the program, in one sense, as "Driver's Ed" training, but for young people learning how to use their cellphone instead of drive a car.
The goal? To help teens use tech as a tool, rather than become a tool of tech – another set of eyeballs to sell to advertisers.
At the retreat, teens are expected to surrender their phones. Camp leaders then change their phones' default settings to increase privacy and minimize distractions. "A lot of the defaults are set up to ping you multiple times a day," Klein notes. Then, on the last day of camp, participants reintegrate the phone back into their lives with the new default settings and leave with a plan.
After the first retreat and developing the concept into its current form, called "GameChangers," Klein in March transformed the concept and other digital wellness programs into a business called America Offline. The GameChangers retreat program is focused on young teens, ages 13 to 15, because that's typically the age when many youth get their first cellphones, he says, adding that it's also when mental health problems can begin to manifest.
Stakes are high at this point of life: Youth brains are still developing, he notes.
"It's an important time for them to learn how to develop relationships; how to address problems; how to think out of the box," Klein says. "If all or the majority of their time not spent in school or sleeping or on the sports field ... is on Snapchat, Instagram or YouTube, there's so much being lost."
Some indicators suggest, however, that at least some cellphone use by teens can be benign. A 2018 study by the Pew Research Center, for example, found that 81% of teens ages 13 to 17 reported that social media makes them feel more connected to what's going on in their friends' lives. In addition, 91% said they use their cellphones to pass the time; 84% said they use it to connect with other people; and 83% said they use it to learn new things.
On the other hand, the same study yielded some concerning data: 45% of respondents reported that they were "almost constantly" on the internet, and 43% said they use their cellphones to avoid interacting with people. Girls, in particular, were more likely to report this, with 54% of girls saying they often or sometimes use their phone to avoid such interaction, compared with 31% of boys.
And a majority of teens – 54% – worry that they spend too much time on their phones, while 56% associate the absence of their phone with loneliness, being upset or feeling anxious, the report noted.
Whether increased phone use by teens has directly caused elevated rates of depression and anxiety in recent years may still be up for debate, depending on whom you ask, but there is a demonstrable correlation. And the statistics are concerning: According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness in San Mateo County, one in five teens ages 13 to 18 experiences a mental health condition in any given year, though four-fifths of them do not receive treatment.
Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University psychology professor and author of the 2017 book "iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood," sums up some of her findings in the title. In an excerpt of the book published in the Atlantic magazine the same year called "Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?", she writes about research tying a decline in mental health among teens to screen time, noting a particularly precipitous drop in teen mental health since 2012, when the proportion of Americans who own smartphones became a majority.
Citing the results of a Monitoring the Future survey, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, she reports, "The results could not be clearer: Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on non-screen activities are more likely to be happy."
In the Atlantic piece, she addresses some of the differences in trends in how girls and boys use technology and how they're impacting mental health. Girls use social media more, and reported an increased frequency of feeling left out – up 45% between 2010 and 2015, compared with 27% among boys.
They're also reporting a greater rise in symptoms of depression than boys – up 50% between 2012 and 2015, compared with 21% among boys.
And the suicide rate is also rising faster among girls than boys, Twenge reports. Between 2007 and 2015, three times as many 12- to 14-year-old girls died by suicide; a twofold increase was reported among boys during the same period. This phenomenon might be a consequence of girls' increased risk of experiencing cyberbullying, she notes.
Looking to the future
Since Klein launched America Offline, the business has announced a series of tech retreat camps around the country, with 2020 events planned in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas. It currently has three employees, six "experience designers" based in the different locations, and an advisory board of six people, he says. The business is also now developing a game-based app to help families develop offline habits and better social connections.
Klein says his next camp for teens is scheduled for President's Day weekend. Thanks to a GoFundMe campaign, he says, he'll be offering 12 full or half scholarships. Programs cost between $600 and $1,000, depending on location and duration, he adds.
He says that the next steps for the growing business include making the programs available to other groups in need of tools for creating "tech-life balance."
Looking ahead, Klein is planning to run similar camps geared toward adults, called "ReCharge," with groups like sports coaches, mothers of young kids, or singles, he says. He also offers custom offline retreats for people with a number of different internet-related problems – including addictions to video games, social media, pornography or gambling – who seek support.
"At the end of the day, it's all about showing people the beauty of being offline in nature to reconnect with themselves, nature and the world," he says.
Want to learn more? Klein has started a podcast, also called America Offline, in which he interviews experts about tech and mental health. He's released nine episodes since early September.
Access it at americaoffline.info/podcasts or via the Apple store.
Tips for building tech-life balance
When asked for some "best practices" for individuals and families who are looking for more tech-life balance, Klein offered the following tips:
● Try to spend the first and last hour of each day offline. Establish routines to start and end the day that are phone-free. Blue light from screens can suppress the secretion of melatonin, a hormone that regulates the sleep cycle, making it harder for kids to fall asleep and enter deep sleep. Without good sleep, it becomes harder to focus in class and get good grades, he adds.
● Emphasize distraction-free work time. During work or homework time, mute notifications and move apps to harder-to-access pages of phones.
● Wait as long as possible to give kids access to screens. As a parent of a 2-year-old, Klein says this can be challenging. "We're now raising a new generation of digital natives. It's important not to give in." While many phones can have controls set on them, children are smart and can learn how to bypass them. Parents should monitor and educate kids about how to use the devices, he adds.
● Know that some apps are designed to be addictive. Flipping through one's Instagram notifications, he says, triggers the same dopamine neurotransmitters, or brain signals that make one feel good, as those that are set off when one eats sugar, takes drugs or has sex. "Yet, we're going ahead and opening the snack cabinet and giving kids at 10 smartphone access to the entire world," he says.
Mental health resources
Any person who is feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal can call 1-800-784-2433 to speak with a crisis counselor. Spanish speakers can call 1-888-628-9454. People can call the StarVista San Mateo County crisis hotline, available 24 hours every day, at 650-579-0350. People can also reach trained counselors at Crisis Text Line by texting 741741. Additional resources can be found here.