While teenagers rely on their smartphones and social media more heavily than ever to communicate, they are lonelier and more depressed than previous generations, according to national surveys.
“The trends in mental health are alarming,” said Jean M. Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University. She has studied how social media usage and smartphones have affected teens.
In the last decade, there has been a 50 percent increase in suicide among 15 to 19-year-olds in the United States. Twenge suspects there is a clear connection to smartphone usage, and national data is backing her theory up.
Data from national surveys show an increase in depression, suicide rates and loneliness among teenagers in recent years, and teens who spend more time on screens are more likely to be depressed. Twenge calls the first generation to gain access to smartphones and social media at a young age iGen.
“After about two hours a day or more, that’s when the mental health issues show up,” said Twenge. “There is a pretty clear relationship between screen usage and reporting more symptoms of depression, loneliness and less happiness.”
There are indications that spending too much time on electronic devices is affecting how much face-to-face interactions teenagers have with other people. National surveys show that teens are not spending as much time hanging out with friends as they did in previous decades.
Twenge recommends that parents limit the amount of time their teenagers spend staring at their screens.
In 2012, the year when more than 50 percent of Americans began to own smartphones, she noticed stark changes in teenagers’ behaviors and their emotional wellbeing.
“That’s a suspicious pattern,” she said. “I wondered if there was a connection in teens between screen time and mental health issues. And there was.”
The economy has improved recently and there have been no other “cataclysmic events” apart from the rise of smart phones, she said.
“I have yet to see any other explanation that fits,” said Twenge. “I can’t think of anything else – especially nothing else that has had such a direct impact on teens’ day-to-day lives.”
Twenge has just published a book called iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. In her book, she examines how the next generation is affected by the new culture of complete digital immersion.
Half of children in the U.S. are receiving smartphones by age 10, said Twenge. Based on her research, she believes that the ideal age for teenagers to receive a smartphone would be around 17, but she understands the ideal isn’t always realistic.
“Elementary school is clearly too early. Even middle school is problematic,” said Twenge. “I’d probably settle for ninth grade.”
Kids these days often see smartphones as mandatory to communicate with friends but it’s possible for them to check in on social media sites using laptops instead, which is easier for parents to limit and supervise. Twenge said that laptops are preferable to gifting children with smartphones from a young age, which could adversely affect the development of their social skills.
“It’s better because it doesn’t become this compulsion for them to look at it all the time,” said Twenge.
Although her research mainly focused on the iGen generation, Twenge noted that plenty of studies have found similar links of loneliness, depression and unhappiness connected to social media and smartphone usage in adults as well.
She emphasized the importance of using these electronic devices in moderation and setting time limits on how long we use them.
“Communicating electronically has advantages if it doesn’t affect the amount of time spent with friends and family in person,” said Twenge. “Many people have assumed that communicating through social media, texting and online is just as good as seeing people in person, but it is not."