In the current (September) issue of The Atlantic, psychologist Jean Twenge asks a proactive question: “Have smartphones destroyed a generation?”
Like many feature articles in the Atlantic, it’s long and detailed – in fact it is an excerpt from a book on the same subject. But the gist is not hard to summarize. Twenge writes that her research on Americans born after 1995 – which she dubs iGen – are experiencing depression, isolation and general immaturity at an alarming rate. The culprit, as she sees it, is obvious: The advent of the smartphone and the new era of all-consuming social media.
“The advent of the smartphone and its cousin the tablet was followed quickly by hand-wringing about the deleterious effects of ‘screen time.’,” Twenge writes. “But the impact of these devices has not been fully appreciated, and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans. The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.”
Twenge’s findings are remarkable. In 2017, for example, a survey of 5,000 teens found that 75 percent owned a smartphone. And with that high number of smartphone use, signs of social isolation reveal themselves in teen behavior. In 2015, 56 percent of high school seniors went out on dates. Two decades ago, 85 percent did.
Declines in dating behaviors might not worry parents a whole lot. Some might even welcome the news. But other signs of social isolation are a lot more troubling. Twenge found that eighth graders who are heavy social media users increase their depression levels by 27 percent. And while teen homicide rates have declined, the suicide rate has increased. In 2011, for the first time in a generation, teen suicide rates surpassed teen homicide rates.
Twenge has a simple explanation for why social media, designed to bring people together, appears to do the exact opposite. For teens, the daily stream of seeing their friends and acquaintances at social gatherings increases their sense of feeling left out. This feeling of loneliness can also come when teens post things to social media that fail to get a significant amount of likes.
It’s hard to imagine the “right way” to deal with the most obvious problems presented by the use of phones and social media by children and teens. Simply taking your kids’ smartphones away and forcing them to play outside might fix things for now, but those children will still be back at school where 75 percent or more of their peers are using the devices.
It’s pretty clear from Twenge’s research that the phone is far less the problem than the various social apps that kids feel like they need to use. For kids, it’s mostly Instagram and Snapchat. I don’t know what parents should do about these apps, but I do know we should think really hard about allowing our kids to use them freely. While I tend to have a future positive outlook on technology in general, the research on social media is pretty clear. It might promise connections, but for many it delivers nothing but misery.