More teens and young adults – especially girls and young women – are reporting being depressed and anxious, with comparable numbers from the mid-2000s. [1
These trends are the basis of a scientific controversy.
One hypothesis that has a lot of traction is that with almost every smartphone you use worsening mental health.
But some researchers argue that this theory is not well supported by existing evidence and that it repeats a "moral panic" argument made many times in the past about video games, rap lyrics, television and even radio, back in its early days.
To understand both sides of the debate, I talked in detail to three researchers: one who argues that teens' use of tech is a big problem , one who thinks the danger is exaggerated and an expert in research methodology who suggests the connection may not be so simple.
Very Concerned about smartphones
Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, may be the researcher most associated with the idea that smartphones are dangerous to teens. iGen, whose 27-word subtitle states her thesis: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood – and What That Means for the Rest of Us .
"At first, when I saw these trends in loneliness and unhealthiness and depression starting to spike around in 2011 or 2012, I really had no idea what could possibly be that. Then, she said, "Pew research that showed 2012 what the first year that most cell phone owners had switched to smartphones.
Not only do you think you are in a hurry?
Twenge is not claiming to have that smartphones cause depression. The data sets she works with – essentially large surveys – do not allow for that.
"It is impossible to test a random trial on generations because you can not randomly assign people to be at different times. In mental health issues. "" So we have to go on the data that we have – it does not add up to a lot of evidence.
Evidence – with caveats
Given that all teens use media, I asked Twenge, why would the trend in mental health be more pronounced in girls than in boys?
Social media, which girls tend to spend more time on, may be the culprit.
"Social media invites comparison," Twenge says. It's not in real time. It invites anxiety over the likes and responses that you're going to get. "
Given that adults use media even more than teenagers, why does this trend crop up in teens? Twenge says it's because their brains are still vulnerable and developing. Plus, they are even more dependent on their phones for social validation.
Twenty even thinks the availability of smartphones could help explain the rise in suicide rates among the youngest girls. "They have more access to information online."
My question for Twenge: She, personally, existed. She previously published a book, Generation Me, that looked at similar data sets and labeled the millennial generation as "miserable," "narcissistic," and "anxious." That book came out in 2006; the iPhone was introduced in 2007. Is she putting wine in new bottles?
Twenge says that with now, mental health trends are even more negative for what they call, and in retrospect, "more of a mixed bag" for millennials.
Not worth the time
Parents are concerned. Detox programs have jump up to treat teen tech addiction. But some researchers are skeptical of the hypothesis that smartphones cause problems.
One team has published two papers that analyze the same data Twenty-three people are looking at – over 350,000 participants in three nationwide surveys in the U.S. and the United Kingdom.
Amy Orben, the lead author of each paper and a psychologist at Oxford University, says the team found that "the teenagers are using technology only."
explain less than 1% of variation in well-being, "Orben says. Co-author Andrew K. Przybylski. "It's so small that it's surpassed by a teenager's glasses to school," or rides a bicycle, or eats potatoes.
How can this be? Well, smartphone use is almost ubiquitous among teenagers today, while only a small minority report mentions mental health problems. So, knowing that a teenager uses a smartphone, even for many hours a day, does not predict that the teenager wants to become depressed. It tells you far, less than factors like genetics or the presence of childhood trauma, for example.
Orben has been researching the history of people making dire claims about young people and new forms of media. For example, she says, "In the 1940s, people were already talking about 'radio addiction.' 57% of children's 6 to 16 were severely 'addicted to radio programs and needed "
She thought the negative trends in mental health could be explained by a wide range of factors: economic anxiety or political upheaval, to name two. And, she adds, there's a chance that young people today may simply be open in surveys when asked about mental health challenges. OK to say they're not OK. " Ironically, this openness may be in fact due to social media.
Twenge responds that a forthcoming paper she has written, currently under review, wants to challenge the conclusion of Orben's team. She says that just because of the impact of smartphone appearing small, that does not mean it's insignificant, especially since, unlike genetics, it may be controllable.
Katherine Keyes, epidemiologist at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. Her focus is on explaining population-wide trends, particularly in adolescent mental health.
Twenge's work, saying it has become a "skew the data" by zooming in on the use of other factors in the lives of adolescents.
And, they say, there are lots of numbers that do not fit Twenge's theory. The uptick in suicides started in 1999. The downturn in teen mental health started in 2005.
Not all the news is bad when it comes to teens , High school graduation rates are up, for example.
Adolescent mental health is not in "free-fall," says Keyes, but seems to have been leveled off a dip in 2012.
There is not a linear relationship between screen use and mental health. On most surveys, teens who use their phones up to two hours a day appear healthier than those who do not use them at all.
In the case of heavy users, Keyes says it may be more of a symptom than a mental health problem. Or there may be a variable that is both driving – like a lack of parental support or health issues.
The explanation is that it is a "bidirectional" relationship among teens, screens and mental health. Nature, Nature, teens who are already struggling may be more drawn to screenshots and more likely to be unhealthy on self-harm or encountering cyberbullies. Make it feel worse.
Twenge agrees with the general idea that "social media invites comparisons and anxiety."
What's a parent to do?
TikTok or play Fortnite all day and night
Twenge, Orben and Keyes are supportive of similar commonsense rules, happy young woman sitting in bed, having fun with them, having fun with them.
So why should the average parent worry about this scientific controversy? Because, Keyes says, when parents simply demonize phones, "there's less of a communications channel" about what teens are encountering online. A parent's opportunity to mentor or support positive uses of media is replaced by "confrontation on a day-to-day basis." Well-meaning parents, wrongly believing the phone to be as risky as a cigarette or a beer, may actually be making their children's lives harder by fighting with them about it.