Smartphones Are Contributing To A Generation of Depressed Kids

by Melissa L. Fenton
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The iGeneration is officially here. Can’t identify them and not sure who they are? Don’t worry — it’s quite easy to detect who they are. Just look for anyone between the ages of about 13–25.

Still not sure? Look again. They will be the ones staring down at their smartphones, oblivious to just about everything else around them. And it’s finally becoming quite clear what the side effects are turning out to be for this generation of children raised alongside the boom of the smartphone.

And folks, it’s not good.

But first, because it’s not all bad either, here’s the good stuff we know about iGen and their use of smartphones. According to a newly published book by Jean Twenge titled iGen: 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 ,”they are the safest generation we’ve ever seen, partly due to the fact they are more comfortable in the confines of their homes because smartphones make them feel connected to friends without having to leave the house. They are also less likely to be in a car accident and drink far less alcohol than their predecessors, which is really good news.

Now for the not-so-good news: Social and behavioral psychologists who study generational shifts and the differing characteristics of each generation have gone so far as to say (about the coinciding rise of smartphone use and today’s teens) that “the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives — and making them seriously unhappy.”

Translation, today’s tweens and teens (race, ethnic background, socioeconomic status is not a factor here, as results show this applies across the board) are leading very different lives, and it has nothing to do with normal shifts in generations, but everything to do with how they are spending their waking hours each day: on their phones.

So what about having a smartphone in their hands is causing such a dramatic shift in behavior and causing our kids to be so unhappy?

First, they are spending on average six hours daily on their phones, and the obvious consequence of this is less social interaction with their peers and less participation in social activities than their predecessors. They are having less sex, working less part-time jobs, studying less, dating less, and driving less than generations before, yet they are not studying more, becoming more responsible young adults, spending more time with their friends, or spending any more time with their parents and families.

So where are they, and is what they are doing making them this unhappy? They’re in their rooms, on their phones, and you bet it is.

The Monitoring the Future survey, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and designed to be nationally representative, is a survey which asks teens how happy they are. It also asks them how they spend their downtime, and if it included non-screen activities like exercise and spending time with friends. It recently started asking teens how much time they spend using social media, texting, and surfing the internet. The results? Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on non-screen activities are more likely to be happy.

I’m not claiming to be some perfect parent here. I’m the mom of four sons, and I know the struggle of finding this balance with our children (and ourselves). And the fact is: The more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression.

According to Twenge’s book, eighth-graders who spend hours a day on social media increase their risk of depression by 27%. The same kids who play sports, go to church, or do homework instead of use their phone can greatly cut that risk of suicide.

Also noted in his book is one of the more shocking consequences of smartphone overuse: Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35% more likely to have a risk factor for suicide, and since the rise of the smartphone, teen homicide has decreased while teen suicide has increased. Why? Because “as teens have started spending less time together, they have become less likely to kill one another, and more likely to kill themselves.”

If that doesn’t make you want to smash every smartphone in your home, I don’t know what will.

I realize that is not realistic, and there are legitimate reasons to give our kids access to these tools, but what we are seeing among today’s teens is truly frightening, and as a mother of three teenagers, I am both horrified and completely at a loss as to what steps I need to begin to take in my own home to reduce smartphone use.

It is a double-edged sword. I have drivers, and they need phones. I have a young adult college, and I need him to have a phone. So what are we to do to ensure our iGen children have a fighting chance at good, stable mental health, while at the same time remain connected to this high-tech-smartphone-run world? I don’t have all the answers, clearly, but now that I have the information I am going to start modeling a healthier relationship with technology and hope they take notice.