How Smartphones Are Making Kids Unhappy

Aug 7, 2017
Originally published on August 7, 2017 4:50 pm

For the first time, a generation of children is going through adolescence with smartphones ever-present. Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, has a name for these young people born between 1995 and 2012: "iGen."

She says members of this generation are physically safer than those who came before them. They drink less, they learn to drive later and they're holding off on having sex. But psychologically, she argues, they are far more vulnerable.

"It's not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades," she writes in a story in The Atlantic, adapted from her forthcoming book. And she says it's largely because of smartphones.

Twenge spoke to All Things Considered about her research and her conclusions. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


How does teen behavior now differ from generations past?

Today's teens are just not spending as much time with their friends in person, face-to-face, where they can really read each others' emotions and get that social support. And we know from lots and lots of research that spending time with other people in person is one of the best predictors for psychological well-being and one of the best protections against having mental health issues.

What is this generation facing that worries you so much?

iGen is showing mental health issues across a wide variety of indicators. They're more likely than young people just five or 10 years ago to say that they're anxious, that they have symptoms of depression, that they have thought about suicide or have even [attempted] suicide. So across the board, there's a really consistent trend with mental health issues increasing among teens.

Is it specifically the smartphone, or is it social media? Or is it the number of hours per day spent on these things?

So, you look at the pattern of loneliness. It suddenly begins to increase around 2012. And the majority of Americans had a cell phone by the end of 2012, according to the Pew Center.

Given that using social media for more hours is linked to more loneliness, and that smartphones were used by the majority of Americans around 2012, and that's the same time loneliness increases, that's very suspicious. You can't absolutely prove causation, but by a bunch of different studies, there's this connection between spending a lot of time on social media and feeling lonely.

How much of a factor is parenting?

So I was somewhat surprised when I interviewed iGen teens how many of them are deeply aware of the negative effects of smartphones. Parenting is playing a role. I think many parents are worried about their teens driving, and going out with their friends and drinking. Yet parents are often not worrying about their teen who stays at home but is on their phone all the time. But they should be worried about that. I think parents are worried about the wrong thing.

Can you propose solutions that might help people?

The first is just awareness that spending a lot of time on the phone is not harmless and that if you're spending a lot of time on the phone, then it may take away from activities that might be more beneficial for psychological well-being, like spending time with people in person.

Then for parents, I think it is [a] good idea to put off giving your child a smartphone as long as you can. If you feel they need a phone, say, for riding a bus, you can get them a flip phone. They still sell them. And then once your teen has a smartphone, there are apps that allow parents to restrict the number of hours a day that teens are on the smartphone, and also what time of day they use it.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Today's teenagers are physically safer than they've ever been - less likely to be in a car accident because more of them are putting off getting their driver's license, less likely to binge drink because in part they're not hanging out with friends as much. Teen birth rates are down because they're having sex later and, in general, dating a lot less. But writer Jean Twenge says the generation growing up in the glowing light of the smartphone is facing a mental health crisis. Twenge wrote about this for The Atlantic. Welcome to the program.

JEAN TWENGE: Thank you.

CORNISH: So we're talking about the generation born between 1995 and 2012. We're not calling these the millennials. You call them iGen.

TWENGE: Right. IGen is the first generation to grow up with smartphones during their adolescence.

CORNISH: Your article has described a potential mental health crisis. And I want you to help me to understand that because you also say the teen suicide rate was actually higher in the '90s. So what is this generation facing that worries you?

TWENGE: Well, the suicide rate was higher in the '90s, but then thankfully it went down by quite a bit until about 2007. And then it began to increase again. IGen is showing mental health issues across a wide variety of indicators. They're more likely than young people just five or 10 years ago to say that they're anxious, that they have symptoms of depression, that they have thought about suicide or have even tried to attempt suicide. So across the board, there's a really consistent trend with mental health issues increasing among teens beginning between 2007 and 2012.

CORNISH: So draw us the connection in terms of why. Is it specifically the smartphone? Or is it social media? Or it's just the idea of how many hours a day they're spending doing this.

TWENGE: So you look at the pattern of loneliness, it suddenly begins to increase around 2012. And the majority of Americans had a cell phone by the end of 2012. So given that using social media for more hours is linked to loneliness and that smartphones were used by the majority of Americans around 2012 and that's the same time loneliness increases, that's very suspicious. You can't absolutely prove causation, but by a bunch of different studies there is this connection between social media and spending a lot of time on social media and feeling lonely. And the - and loneliness spiked when it was constantly with you on the phone.

CORNISH: Your writing has prompted some conversation on social media already. And we've heard from teachers who say their students wish their parents hadn't given them a smartphone at 12 or 13, or kids who say, like, they're relieved if a school or a class just takes the phone away for a short period of time. How much of a factor is parenting here?

TWENGE: So I was somewhat surprised when I interviewed iGen teens how many of them are deeply aware of the negative effects of smartphones. Parenting is playing a role. I think many parents are worried about their teens driving and going out with their friends and drinking. Yet parents are often not worrying about their teen who stays at home but is on their phone all the time. They - oh, that's just how teens are. So they should be worried about that. I think parents are worried about the wrong thing.

CORNISH: Given how serious you've talked about this issue and this problem, what are some of the solutions you've come to, some ideas that can help people who are listening?

TWENGE: So the first is just awareness that spending a lot of time on the phone is not harmless and that it may take away from activities that are more beneficial for psychological well-being like spending time with people in person. Then for parents, I think it is a good idea to put off giving your child a smartphone as long as you can. And then once your teen has a smartphone, there are apps that allow parents to restrict the number of hours a day that teens are on the smartphone and also what time of day they use it. So you could have it turn off at 10 at night and not turn back on till 6 in the morning to make sure it doesn't interfere with their sleep, for example.

CORNISH: Jean Twenge is author of "iGen." That book comes out later this month. Her piece in The Atlantic is titled "Have Smartphones Destroyed A Generation?" Thanks so much.

TWENGE: Thank you.

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