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Smartphones, Teens, and Mental Health: Why We Need Less Sensationalism and More Respect

Updated on August 16, 2017
Julia Regier profile image

Julia is a college student who is working on spending less time scrolling through her iPhone.

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I’ve had several interesting conversations already about psychologist Jean M. Twenge’s provocative Atlantic article, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”. It seems to bring out strong reactions in people, whether of skepticism, anger, or melancholy agreement. Her research has found a strong correlation between the heightened levels of anxiety and depression and greater risk of suicide suffered by today’s adolescents and the rise of smartphones and social media. At 21, I am right on the upper edge of the generation she terms “iGen,” who has grown up using this technology. However, I am also considered a young Millennial, and I didn’t get a smartphone until my first year of college. I was certainly a teenager recently enough to read the article from a “young person’s” perspective.

I wasn’t at all surprised by the correlation found between depression/social isolation and social media usage; I myself have experienced feelings of low self-esteem and isolation from comparing myself to others on social media, and I’ve also at times felt compulsively addicted to my smartphone. This type of research is important, both to undertake and to share widely—hopefully sparking discussions about the effects of rapidly changing technology on our mental health. But questions remain: what should be done in response to these findings, and how should we approach conversations about them, especially with young people?

Twenge’s article doesn’t adequately address these questions, primarily because it lacks a sufficient understanding of the function of social media and smartphones in teens’ lives, and it lacks respect for teenagers as autonomous, if not fully developed, individuals. As a result, after reading it I was left feeling unsettled and defensive on behalf of preteens and teens. I feel strongly that Twenge’s concluding “solution”—delay your kids from getting smartphones and limit what they do on them as much a possible—will get us nowhere. Smartphones aren’t going anywhere, and teens are just a step away from adulthood, when they will need to navigate their relationship with technology and social media. Why not start now?

Twenge does respect young people’s perspectives, and she acknowledges that many of the teens she’s talked to seem aware of the negative effects their social media usage has on them. So now we need to shift the focus: instead of scratching our heads wondering why teens are on social media so much, and talking about how detrimental it is to them, adults and children alike need to learn to set boundaries and to use smartphones in a healthier way. This can’t happen if we continue to talk and write about teenagers as if they are irrational, non-autonomous creatures, rather than human beings who fall prey to social pressure and addictive behavior just like anyone else.

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Respect the Role of Social Media and Respect Teens

Instead of treating social media usage like a peer-pressured compulsion, researchers need to accept and respect the integral roles that it plays in the social lives of young people—some of which are often ignored. When I was in high school, we had a Facebook group for each AP class, which we used not only to commiserate with each other, but to double check due dates and clarify assignments. My high school’s theater company used our Facebook group to make important announcements; my friends and I also used private groups to make plans with each other. This private group function is something I don’t often see discussed in studies of social media, but it’s the most important feature of Facebook to many people I know. More recently, tagging friends in memes and videos has become an important form of communication, connection and humor—which comes up even during in-person interactions (if you haven’t seen the meme everyone is talking about, you’re out of the loop).

An analogy can be drawn between a preventative stance to teen social media usage and abstinence-only sex education. Teens are going to have sex and use social media, though there are dangerous potential consequences to both. Urging teens to get off social media entirely, just like telling them to abstain from sex, reflects a lack of nuanced understanding of the important role social media plays in teens’ lives, underestimates teens’ ability to set boundaries and make healthy choices, and will never lead to an effective solution.

Teens are not fully developed adults, but they are well on their way to becoming them. It has always baffled me how adults expect 18-year-olds to suddenly make the transition to independence when they aren’t often given the chance to display maturity and capability as teenagers. Twenge notes that today’s teens are “growing up more slowly” than past generations did; the title of her forthcoming book claims that iGen members are “completely unprepared for adulthood.” I’m automatically opposed to such sweeping statements about an entire generation of people, but beyond my objections, Twenge’s recognition of this supposed immaturity problem seems at odds with her recommendation that parents control teens’ smartphone usage. On NPR’s All Things Considered, she recommended 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.” This sort of controlling parenting, especially when applied to older teens, is counterproductive to fostering teens’ independence and maturity.

If we have greater respect for teens’ abilities to understand the problems that come with social media, engage in self-care and make rational decisions, this will lead us to promote more realistic solutions to the supposed smartphone apocalypse. There should be programs in schools where teens can discuss the positives and negatives of their experiences on social media, learn about negative psychological effects, and brainstorm solutions. But such programs will never work unless teens’ voices are amplified within them. It’s simply not realistic to tell teenagers to stop using social media when so many aspects of their lives revolve around it; correspondingly, efforts to curb social media use would need to involve everyone, including organized clubs that use it for official communications. We need to respect how difficult it is for many teens to “opt out,” and incorporate that reality into our solutions.

Underlying Twenge’s piece is an assumption that adolescent social media usage is at least somewhat irrational and compulsive. Even if this is true (which I don’t think it is), smartphone addiction is certainly not restricted to young people. True, the negative mental health effects of social media are probably stronger for young people, since adolescence is a time of identity formation, social comparison, and mental development—but we shouldn’t forget that people of all ages use (and abuse) social media sites. We can’t separate out the “adult smartphone problem” from the “teen smartphone problem”; in fact, talking about them together will help shed the layer of condescension that seems ever-present in studies concerning teenagers.

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Are Smartphones Really Destroying a Generation?

It’s no secret: smartphone and social media usage has detrimental effects on adolescent mental health. But it’s important not to get carried away in the sensationalism of headlines or statistics. Consider this: people discuss mental health much more openly than they did several years ago, so it seems they would be more likely to self-diagnose or admit to mental illness. I don’t deny that an increase in anxiety and depression has occurred, but it’s possible the severity of the increase could be mitigated if we take into account undiagnosed sufferers of the past.

I can only speak from my limited experience, but I’ve never been convinced that young people are giving up any significant amount of face-to-face communication because of technology. Smartphones have certainly changed the way that people interact; people can be in contact with each other constantly, and online communication has given rise to an entirely new set of unspoken rules and social norms. But we should be extremely wary of claiming that smartphones are “dooming” an entire generation. People mature over time, and so do their abilities to set boundaries for their smartphone usage. I remember in middle school and high school people would often be on their devices, multitasking during conversations as the article describes. But I’ve actually noticed a significant decrease in this behavior among college-age friends. Now, if I get together with a friend, the assumption is that we will have our phones away while we’re talking. In all areas of life, our judgement-making skills and powers of self-control develop as we age, and smartphone use is no exception.

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Real Solutions

In a nutshell: we need to support children and teens in learning how to manage their use of technology. We need to talk about the isolating effects social media can have, without writing off social media entirely. Self-control, boundary-setting, and an awareness of one’s feelings are all important skills to be helping teenagers figure out for themselves, yet many people don’t respect teenagers’ ability to grasp these concepts. This is a mistake. Social media is here to stay, at least for the time being, and trying to prevent teens from using it is a losing battle. So is framing teens’ smartphone usage as immature or irrational. If adults don’t understand the complex functions social media performs in teens’ lives, efforts to reverse the negative mental health trends associated with it will inevitably fail.

Most older iGens/young Millennials I’ve talked to about this issue have struggled in one way or another with their smartphone and social media usage: they scroll mindlessly on their Twitter or Facebook feeds, they feel left out looking at their friends’ Snapchat stories, they feel pressure to have perfect Instagram posts, etc. A lot of them have taken steps to set boundaries for themselves, by deleting mobile apps, taking a break from certain social media sites, or just making it a goal to look at their smartphones less frequently throughout the day. Even the 13-year-old quoted in Twenge’s article seems to understand the negative effects of her social media usage. So why don’t we try to work with teens like her to develop healthier habits, without dismissing the existence of her social world, which is lived out on social media? If we can make the transition from condescension to open discussion, from prevention and control to teaching kids the skill of healthy boundary-setting, then we can begin to address this problem in a more respectful and effective way.

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