As a parent, what you need to know about whether smartphones are destroying the youth

Jean Twenge, psychology professor at San Diego State University, caused an uproar with her recent article in the Atlantic, in which she argued that ”it’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.” While parents and media quickly caught on to the story, the scientific community has been more skeptical.

In particular, Sarah Cavanagh pointed out in Psychology Today blog post that there are three problems in Twenge’s arguments, concluding that instead of there being a crisis, ”the kids are gonna be ok.”

So who is right, Twenge who see that the kids are facing ”worst mental-health crisis in decades” or Cavanagh who ensures us that there is nothing to worry about, the kids are gonna be ok?

To answer that question, we need to proceed in two steps: 1) Is there a mental health crisis? 2) What is the most compelling explanation for the potential crisis?

First, let’s look at statistics on depression. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health 2015, there indeed has been a rise in depression that started around 2012. Between 2004 and 2012, there were no big changes in youth depression. From 2006 to 2011 the percentage of youth aged 12 to 17 having experienced a major depressive episode remained stuck between 7.9% and 8.2 %. Then something began to happen and the percentage has been on a constant increase, being 12.5 % in 2015. That translates into roughly a 50 % increase, or some million more young people suffering from depression.

So here Sarah Cavanagh seems to be plainly wrong, and actually behaving quite irresponsibly. Completely ignoring the nationally representative statistics that show clear increases on depression and that the suicide rates for teen girls have hit a 40-year high, she asks us to trust what she states is her “suspicion” that ”the kids are gonna be ok”. She should be telling that to the parents of those three million kids currently struggling with depression, or to the parents who are currently desperately trying to prevent their suicidal kids from turning their thoughts into action.

So, unless there are some other nationally representative statistics contradicting these findings, we can conclude that something is happening to today’s youth, and their mental health is deteriorating quicker than in any point in the last 14 years.

Next up: What is the cause for this decline in mental health?

Twenge, as noted, argues that smartphones might be one of the major culprits. They were introduced around the same time as the declining trend in the mental health started. She also cites a bunch of correlational research that demonstrate a connection between screen activity and declined mental health. Here’s Twenge:

“There’s not a single exception. 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 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. (That’s much more than the risk related to, say, watching TV.”

”Once again, the effect of screen activities is unmistakable: The more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression. Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent, while those who play sports, go to religious services, or even do homework more than the average teen cut their risk significantly.”

So this proves that smartphones are destroying the mental health of the youth? Not so quickly! As Twenge herself notes, these are correlational data so we cannot tell which causes which. Does spending time online increase depression? Or do depressed people spend more time online? Or is there a third factor causing both of these phenomenon? Perhaps being in bad physical shape leads to both depression and spending more time online. With correlational data, we can’t tell which of these explanations is true.

This is the gist of Cavanagh’s critique. She points out the correlational nature of the data. She also suggests that Twenge is cherry-picking data, ignoring some studies that demonstrate how social media use is linked with positive outcomes like resilience. Finally, she notes that various contextual and personality factors propably play a role: Some ways of using smartphones might be healthier than others, and some types of persons might be less susceptible to the negative effects of social media use.

These are all fair critiques and as a researcher I completely agree with her that we need research that would investigate causality and potential moderating factors.

What Cavanagh is ignoring here is the difference between science and the real world.

As researchers, we have time to wait for future research making the direction of causality more clear and identifying all the contextual, personality and other factors moderating the effects. As parents and policy-makers we can’t just notice that depression- and suicide-rates are going up, and decide to do nothing for the next ten years while we wait for the research results to come in.

As a parent of a teenager, one doesn’t have the privilege of waiting, one has to act now. Now that the child is a teenager; now that the child is demonstrating signs of depression or suicidal thoughts; now that the child seems to affected by a mobile phone addiction. The same is true for the policy makers, school teachers, youth therapists and other professionals working with youth. They are facing the depressed teenagers today, not in ten years.

In real life, one has to react to the problems in the present moment. And for that, one needs to use the best possible evidence available at the present moment. We know for a fact that depression rates are going up so there is something causing this change. It could be many separate factors — the economic prospects, increased deprivation of sleep, too much helicopter parenting — and it could be several factors together.

As regards these potential factors, Twenge has presented quite a compelling case for why smartphone usage could be one of the major factors causing this trend. Of course, the case would be more compelling if she could offer more than two causal studies that would support it. But as a parent or a professional working with youth, I have to balance Twenge’s current account with how compelling are the currently offered arguments for other potential factors causing depression. And then I have to act.

So I agree with Cavanagh that we should not blindly believe that smartphones are the sole cause of youth depression. We should be careful in our conclusion. But Twenge has made a compelling case that in our practical endeavors, one key factor that we should be aware of and look more carefully into, is how much and in what ways the young people are using their smartphones.

In the best case, Twenge’s article would trigger proponents of competing accounts to write their own story, after which we could evaluate, which of the suggested factors seems today the most plausible candidate for causing the increase in youth depression.

In any case, I believe that Twenge’s article has done the nation a service. It has highlighted one potential cause of youth depression. We don’t yet know if it is truly destroying a generation. But we need to prepare also for that possibility. More probably, when moderately used and when used in the right way, smartphones and social media can have neutral or even beneficial effects for youth development and mental health. But for a significant minority of the youth, it can become an addiction and a source of mental health problems. We don’t yet know how to separate healthy smartphone use from unhealthy, but Twenge’s article has hopefully demonstrated that it is vitally important to figure that out. Both as researchers, as practitioners, and as parents.

Twenge used strong rhetoric in the article. But to get the attention this potentially very important matter deserves, I believe that was what was needed.

So my advice for parents — based on Twenge’s article and what little I know about the matter from other sources — is this:

  1. Be aware of that smartphones and social media usage could be an important factor influencing the mental health and life of the young people.
  2. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that smartphone usage would be ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’. The kids can find tremendous support from right social media groups. Or they could be cyber-bullied. It is as much about what one does with one’s phone as it is about how much one uses it.
  3. Pay attention to how and to what extent your own children are using their smartphones and social media. And how changes in these seems to influence their well-being.
  4. Make sure that the kids have other content to their life beyond smartphones and try to build ‘smartphone free’ periods into their everyday life.
  5. Follow the debate around the issue and remain open to readjust your opinions and policies as new evidence comes in.

P.S. All this being said, there are also aspects of Twenge’s narrative that I don’t find too convincing. She is right when she speaks about the dramatic increases in the suicide rates: ”Although the rate increased for both sexes, three times as many 12-to-14-year-old girls killed themselves in 2015 as in 2007, compared with twice as many boy.” However, as noted for example by Antti Summala, the statistics from CDC show that the current trend of increased suicides started already around 2007 and in that sense don’t support Twenge’s narrative of smartphones influencing it. Something else was already increasing the suicide rates before the introduction of smartphones.

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