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Researcher Finds Smartphones Are Isolating… and Depressing a Generation

August 13, 2017

In the title of her her Atlantic article that will appear in the September issue, Jean Twenge poses this question: “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?“. The short answer to her question is “NOT YET”… but an alternative answer might be “IT WILL IF ADULTS DON’T MONITOR THE EFFECTS OF SMARTPHONES QUICKLY AND FORCEFULLY”.

Ms. Twenge’s article is full of data contrasting the current generation, which she dubs the iGen, to previous generations and finds that today’s teens are more isolated, lonely, and depressed despite the fact that they are more “connected” thanks to cell phones. Ms. Twenge describes iGen as follows:

Born between 1995 and 2012, members of this generation are growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet. The Millennials grew up with the web as well, but it wasn’t ever-present in their lives, at hand at all times, day and night. iGen’s oldest members were early adolescents when the iPhone was introduced, in 2007, and high-school students when the iPad entered the scene, in 2010. A 2017 survey of more than 5,000 American teens found that three out of four owned an iPhone.

She notes that smartphones have “…radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health…” and given the near universality of cell phone use by teens it has impacted rich, poor, urban and rural teenagers across our entire country. Ms. Twenge elaborates on the changes, some of which result in improvements in the data used to measure well-being but most of which cause a diminishment of well being.

The good news?

More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party, today’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been. They’re markedly less likely to get into a car accident and, having less of a taste for alcohol than their predecessors, are less susceptible to drinking’s attendant ills.

The bad news, though, is more subtle and more pernicious. Depression and suicide rates are higher, dating has diminished markedly, part-time work among teenagers has declined, face-to-face group encounters are fewer and farther between, and sound sleep is diminished. Here’s a synopsis of Ms. Twenge’s findings:

Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011…

…only about 56 percent of high-school seniors in 2015 went out on dates; for Boomers and Gen Xers, the number was about 85 percent.

In the late 1970s, 77 percent of high-school seniors worked for pay during the school year; by the mid-2010s, only 55 percent did. The number of eighth-graders who work for pay has been cut in half. These declines accelerated during the Great Recession, but teen employment has not bounced back, even though job availability has….

The number of teens who get together with their friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2015; the decline has been especially steep recently…The roller rink, the basketball court, the town pool, the local necking spot—they’ve all been replaced by virtual spaces accessed through apps and the web…

Sleep experts say that teens should get about nine hours of sleep a night; a teen who is getting less than seven hours a night is significantly sleep deprived. Fifty-seven percent more teens were sleep deprived in 2015 than in 1991. In just the four years from 2012 to 2015, 22 percent more teens failed to get seven hours of sleep.

The reason for these changes, Ms. Twenge surmises, is that teens are spending more and more time in front of smartphone screens, which are available to them 24/7 and whose siren call (or beeps and vibrations) make them irresistible. And she finds that the more time teens spend with their smartphones, the more they are likely to be depressed and unhappy:

All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness. Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who devote less time to social media. Admittedly, 10 hours a week is a lot. But those who spend six to nine hours a week on social media are still 47 percent more likely to say they are unhappy than those who use social media even less. The opposite is true of in-person interactions. Those who spend an above-average amount of time with their friends in person are 20 percent less likely to say they’re unhappy than those who hang out for a below-average amount of time….

Teens who visit social-networking sites every day but see their friends in person less frequently are the most likely to agree with the statements “A lot of times I feel lonely,” “I often feel left out of things,” and “I often wish I had more good friends.” Teens’ feelings of loneliness spiked in 2013 and have remained high since.

Accordingly, the number of teens who feel left out has reached all-time highs across age groups. Like the increase in loneliness, the upswing in feeling left out has been swift and significant.

As a casual user of Facebook and a blogger, I can understand this phenomenon. The number of likes and the number of hits are an easy way to determine if anyone is reading what you post. As a blogger, it is an easy route to depression if you believe that a low-readership day on the blog is an indication that you are “losing readers” or “losing relevance”. But putting myself in the mind of a teenager, I can see where getting fewer “likes” on your Facebook page than a classmate or having fewer “friends” on Facebook than a classmate might be devastating. And if a classmate publicly humiliates you on social media, things can get bad… and as Ms. Twenge reported, that is especially the case for teenage girls:

Social media give middle- and high-school girls a platform on which to carry out the style of aggression they favor, ostracizing and excluding other girls around the clock.

The solution to this isolation? Less screen time, especially in the evening, and more opportunities for face-to-face interaction. The technology is here… we need to use to achieve the best ends possible.


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