Have smartphones destroyed a generation?

This article by Jean Twinge, (psychologist) caught my attention as an educator and parent as it raises some alarming concerns around social-emotional and mental health well being, particularly for young people. There is no doubt that technology has changed the way we  work, access information, shop and socialise, however, it is important that these devices, namely smartphones, don’t take over our lives.

In her article, Twinge  graphs major shifts in emotional and behaviour, where significant changes occur from the year 2012 (the year where smartphones were  owned by more than 50 percent of the population in the USA). Twinge states, “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.” (A 2017 survey of more than 5,000 American teens found that three out of four owned an iPhone.)

  • What is alarming, is the following evidence which identifies the profound effect these devices are having on the lives of young people:
  • Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011 (the current smartphone generation – iGen (a term coined by Twinge).
  • iGen’s are less likely to date, hangout with friends and go to parties. And everything they do is documented on social networks.
  • Increased depression and anxiety – when a post is made on social networks, there is the anxious wait to see how many likes it will get or what might be said. Twinge states that girls’ depressive symptoms increased by 50 percent between 2012 to 2015; boys’ around 21 percent. Girls are also more likely to experience cyber bullying.
  • Less time is spent on homework.
  • They are spending less time hanging out. They are spending more time at home, in their bedrooms, alone, with their devices.
  • Increased feelings of loneliness and feeling left out. The more time they spend on devices, the more common are these feelings.
  • Depression is another issue of concern. Twinge identifies that, “Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide, such as making a suicide plan.”
  • Sleep deprivation is another issue where phones are not switched off until late at night – if at all.

Twinge’s study identified 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. The opposite is true regarding interactions with friends. Those who spend an above-average amount of time with their friends in person and not via media, are 20 percent less likely to say they’re unhappy.

The data comes out the same each time regarding this fact: the more time spent on social media, the more unhappy/depressed a person feels. A factor which could be attributed to this is that one sees everyone’s highlights on social media – their fun time, holidays, parties, with friends and so on –  when we see this over and over again we start to become dissatisfied with our own lives. It gives us unrealistic expectations of  our lives. For the most part, people’s lives are taken up with routine activities, family time, work, study or school – not all the glamour and pizzazz that is often highlighted on social media.

What is at stake here is these patterns are likely to follow young people into adulthood. Where depression has occurred, it is more likely to happen again. The importance of balance needs to be put into place. Just as adolescents in previous generations had boundaries placed on them – what time they came home, where they were and so on, parents and teachers can instill the importance of device free time, socialising in real time and getting out, away from their bedroom and devices.

Further reading New Healthy Media Habits for Younger Kids