Monday, December 11, 2017

Are Teens Killing Themselves With Smartphones?

Jean Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, and she thinks she knows one surprising reason why the rates of teenage depression and suicide have been climbing steadily since 2012 in the U. S.  She summarizes both her own work and the results of several other social-science studies of the problem in a recent article on the academics-to-the-public website called "The Conversation."

From an analytical view, she and her colleagues seem to have done their homework.  The raw statistics are chilling:  between 2010 and 2015, the number of teenagers reporting symptoms of depression in several large surveys rose by a third, as well as the number of 13- to 18-year-olds who committed suicide.  Examining the usual suspects—economic causes, race, class, and so on—revealed that the increases were quite uniform and uncorrelated to shifts in those factors.  So the researchers started looking for anything else that changed a lot in those five years.  And what they hit on was the fact that what marketers call the "penetration rate"—the percent of a given market group which owns a new product—went above 50 percent in 2012 among teenagers for guess what?  Smartphones. 

Examining the correlation between smartphones and teenage depression and suicide more closely, Twenge noted that longitudinal and causal-link studies point to smartphones as a likely cause, and not just a correlated effect of depression.  That eliminates a problem you often have with studies like this, where you find that the factor you're interested in happens alongside some other factor, but there's no obvious causal connection between them.  Basically, they found that when people became more unhappy, they didn't use smartphones a lot more, but when otherwise normal people began to use smartphones, they had a tendency to become less happy.

Twenge speculates about exactly why smartphones tend to do this to teens, and some of the answers are pretty obvious, at least to those of us who don't use smartphones much.  Every minute a teen is in the presence of another live person, and instead stares at a smartphone, there is an opportunity lost for direct human interaction, which both psychology and common sense say is one of the most beneficial things you can do to avoid depression.  And although she doesn't mention it, I will add that the image-maintenance which keeping up one's Facebook page requires would give even a professional media manager of the 1960s nightmares.  But playing that game requires teens to be constantly checking out what their peers (I won't call them friends) are doing and trying to be equally impressive by means of one's own online persona. 

Here we have a fairly new technology which seems to have an objective negative effect on the health and lifespan of a certain class of people.  If this were a different kind of problem, I can tell you what would happen from here, drawing from examples like the "radium girls" episode of the 1920s, when women who painted radium-dial watches and instruments started dying off.  Survivors of those who fell ill and died called for legislation, which was first opposed by the manufacturers, but eventually government public-health agencies got involved, and the dangerous manufacturing practices were banned.  Today nobody even manufactures radium anymore—it's just too dangerous.

The trouble with the smartphone-teen-depression issue is, you can't point to a chemical or physical cause that smartphones are guilty of.  But it's pretty obvious that something about the way teens use them affects their minds and leads to depression and suicide.  We know that much, but what do we do to fix it?  Twenge ends her article with a halfhearted call to limit smartphone use to two hours a day, but that might not be enough to make a difference.  And how can parents do that without following their kids around all the time?  I suppose there's an app for that, but if there is, there's also an app for evading the time limits imposed by the first app.

I'd like to add a couple of examples of people I know whose lives are relevant to this issue.  One is an example of what happens to a person when most of his social action is lived online, and another example of more or less the opposite. 

The first example is a relative of mine.  After working in a professional career, in his forties he got tired of dealing with people in person on his job—not particular people, really, just people in general.  He had accumulated enough money to live on without working if he lived very frugally, so he just quit. 

This was about twenty years ago, when the Internet was just beginning to take off.  He discovered chatrooms, and developed online relationships as time went on.  For the last ten or fifteen years, his days have scarcely varied.  He sleeps until early afternoon, gets up, makes breakfast, I guess you'd call it, and logs on.  Then maybe he watches television some, but from what he tells me (I keep in regular phone contact with him), most of his time is spent in online contact with people around the world, in Alaska and Wales and other English-speaking regions.  He stays up till three or four in the morning doing this sort of thing, then goes to bed.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  As far as I know he still goes grocery shopping, but that is about his only live human interaction.  And that is just the way he likes it.  He recently bought his first smartphone, but I don't think it can do him any more damage than he's already sustained.  I think talking with me is about all he uses it for.

He's an example of what can happen to someone who indulges the fantasy of an all-online life. 

The other example is a person I know a lot less about.  She's a young woman who attends a local church we know of.  She is one of a family of eight or so children.  The father is a doctor and the mother has homeschooled the entire family.  The woman is now ninenteen and holds down a job and I think is attending community college.  In the last year or so, she got her first smartphone.  Not only did she survive most of her teenage years without it, she has turned out better than a lot of kids who had them.  So in the right circumstances, it is possible in 2017 to raise teenagers and not give them smartphones.  I've seen it done.  But whether smartphones are so bad for teens that we should enact a minimum phoning age of 21, I can't say.  All I will say is, there's something bad going on with smartphones and teenagers, and if we care, we should do something about it.

Sources:  Jean Twenge's article "With teen mental health deteriorating over five years, there’s a likely culprit" appeared on Nov. 14, 2017 at  I have changed a few details to preserve anonymity of the individuals discussed. 

1 comment:

  1. Given the fact that social media is making teens unhappy, you'd think they'd give it up. Peer pressure prevents that and yet it might also suggest a fix. Create a group of peers who don't use social media, who actually talk face to face instead of faking conversation via Facebook.