Smartphones and Anxious Kids: Mental Health Issues and the iGeneration
By Melissa Riddle Chalos
Anyone who lives or interacts with pre-teens or teenagers on a daily basis knows that, as sure as there are hands at the ends of their arms, there are often smartphones in their hands.
These kids have never known a world without the internet. A 2015 report from the Pew Research Center found that 24 percent of teenagers ages 13-17 say they’re online “almost constantly” and that 73 percent have a smartphone or access to one.1 The digital generation communicates more in pictures and via text as they ever do in person. Smartphones, tablets, laptops and the social media they deliver have informed and shaped everything in their lives.
According to psychologist Jean Twenge, author of 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, this iGen — born between 1995 and 2005 — is “on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”2 And while the veracity of her hypothesis is arguable, there is no doubt that the digital age is impacting adolescent mental health.
How Do Smartphones and Social Media Impact the Mental Health of Teens and Adolescents?
If you think about it, this generation, also known as Generation Z, has the entire world of information immediately accessible. No dictionaries, encyclopedias or phone books are necessary. It’s all in their phone. Twitter connects you with your favorite celebrities. Apps tell you where your “friends” are located. Snapchat tells you what they’re doing, wearing and saying. And all this information and technology is designed to make life easier, more convenient and more connected. So, what could possibly be harmful about that?
Glen Geher, chair of psychology at the State University of New York, recently wrote in Psychology Today about three ways modern internet technologies are harming young people.
For starters, he says, smartphones and social media teach adolescents what social-psychologists refer to as deindividuated communication.3 In other words, when they communicate via smartphone texting or via social media, they feel essentially faceless, absent or anonymous and unaccountable for what they are saying. It’s certainly easier to be mean and hurtful to others, when you’re not present physically to get a reaction.
“Kids text all sorts of things that you would never in a million years contemplate saying to anyone’s face,” says Dr. Donna Wick, a clinical and developmental psychologist who runs Mind to Mind Parent. “You hope to teach them that they can disagree without jeopardizing the relationship, but what social media is teaching them to do is to disagree in ways that are more extreme and to jeopardize the relationship. It’s exactly what you don’t want to have happen,” she says.4
iGen kids have ample, anonymous opportunities to be verbally aggressive and extreme. They mock, shame, reject and bully online, and the social impact to those on the receiving end is instantly devastating. It’s no wonder anxiety levels are at an all-time high among this age group and continues as they enter the college years.
Addiction Is Addiction
Gerher goes on to say that cell phones, especially for this generation, are “truly addicting.” He refers to 2016 CNN/Common Sense Media poll found that 50 percent of teens are addicted to their cell phones, unable to function without it. The brain circuitry associated with addiction, he adds, “is the same regardless of the content of the addiction, which wreaks havoc on our kids’ mental lives.”3
Less Time Outdoors
Another harmful effect of smartphone and social media overload is simply the lack of time spent outside. The mental and physical health benefits of being out in nature are well documented, and yet our children spend less and less time outdoors, disconnected from the digital world. Only 10 percent of kids spend time outdoors daily.5 And yet time spent in nature has such incredible benefits. It builds confidence, promotes creativity, imagination, responsibility, awareness, gets them moving and makes them think. And perhaps most importantly, time spent outdoors reduces stress and fatigue.
Disenfranchised from Parents
Parents buy smartphones for their children primarily for the instant communication it affords them, but psychologists — and certainly a majority of parents of teens would agree — that the parent-child relationship suffers when technology usage is not controlled. Teens are averaging nine hours a day on their devices, more time alone in their rooms. In the car, at the dinner table, even on vacation, real, device-free conversations with parents rarely happen. Trust between children and parents is often tested by limits placed on phones and social media usage. Teens are especially savvy and secretive with social media, using apps like Vaulty to hide pictures, hidden apps that look like calculators and closed/private Facebook groups to keep their digital life from their parents.
Researchers at Common Sense Media reported that 30 percent of teens believe their parents know “a little” or “nothing” about what social media apps and sites they use. But — and here’s a bit of good news — teens still say that their parents have the biggest influence on them when it comes to what is appropriate and inappropriate online.6
Adolescence is an important time for developing social skills. They learn by interacting with their peers how to give and receive friendship, how to resolve conflict and the do’s and don’ts of social etiquette. But as teens spend less time with their friends face-to-face, they have fewer opportunities to practice these social skills. They become more uncomfortable in social settings, preferring to communicate by text or emoji rather than in real time. Despite all their digital connections, they create a false, lonely existence for themselves.
“As a species, we are very highly attuned to reading social cues,” says Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist and author of The Big Disconnect. “There’s no question kids are missing out on very critical social skills. In a way, texting and online communicating—it’s not like it creates a nonverbal learning disability, but it puts everybody in a nonverbal disabled context, where body language, facial expression, and even the smallest kinds of vocal reactions are rendered invisible.”7
The average teen needs between eight to 10 hours of sleep each night because these years are prime time for physical, intellectual and emotional growth. In fact, teens need more sleep than in their pre-teen years and more sleep than they will need as adults. And yet, 57 percent more teens were sleep deprived in 2015 than in 1991, before the advent of smartphones. In fact, between 2012 and 2015, 22 percent of teens failed to get even seven hours of sleep per night. Why? Many of them are on their smartphones, stimulating their brains, their screen lights suppressing the hormone melatonin, which supports sleep.2
Teens who are sleep deprived have trouble focusing at school. Their grades suffer, and their motivation to succeed often wanes. Tired teens are slower to react physically and mentally and are more likely to be involved in car accidents. They are more likely to experience mood swings and, when compounded by social pressure, depression.
Monitoring the Future surveys thousands of 12th graders since 1975, asking 1000 questions. Recent results could not be clearer: Teens who spend more time than average on non-screen activities are more likely to be happy.2 Those who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, lonely and suffer anxiety and depression.
As teens have started spending less time together, they have become less likely to kill others, but more likely to kill themselves. In 2011, for the first time in 24 years, the teen suicide rate was higher than the teen homicide rate. Girls are especially vulnerable to symptoms of depression. Statistics show that from 2012 to 2015, depression in boys increased by 21 percent, while girls’ increased by 50 percent—more than twice as much.8 And those who struggle with depression during the teen years don’t just snap out of it. A 2014 report in Psychology Today found that one-fourth to one-third of college students meet the criteria for anxiety or depression.6
Is There Any Good News?
With all the negatives associated with the iGeneration, it might be tempting to think the news is all bad. But it’s not. For better or for worse, there are a few silver linings:
For starters, Twenge continues in the Atlantic feature, the iGen is physically safer. They drive less — one in four still doesn’t have driver’s license by the time he or she graduates high school.2
Because they leave the house less often, they are less sexually active. In 2016, the teen birth rate in the U.S. hit an all-time low, down 67% since its zenith in 1991.2
This generation is less likely to try or regularly use drugs and alcohol. A 2016 Monitoring the Future survey — a survey of eighth, 10th and 12th graders — found that use of illicit drugs other than marijuana was at the lowest level in the 40-year history of the project 9
“Across a range of behaviors — drinking, dating, spending time unsupervised — 18-year-olds now act more like 15-year-olds used to, and 15-year-olds more like 13-year-olds … Childhood now stretches well into high school.”2
iGen teens also have more leisure time, but for all the aforementioned reasons, they are spending it alone in their rooms on their phones leaves them lonely, anxious and prone to depression.
So, What Can Parents Do?
Parents need not feel powerless. There are steps you can take to protect your children’s mental and physical health and to make digital media a more balanced part of their lives.
- Like respect, you can’t demand it: you have to model it. You set the example of how to use and limit phones, social media and technology in your home, your car and your life. If you’re on your smartphone when your child interacts with you, sleeping with your phone next to your head and checking your email in the middle of the night, you can’t expect more of them than what you model for
- Unplug and get outside. Sure, your teens may object at first, but getting outside with your teen makes a real-time connection with the person they need the most: you. Go for a hike in the woods, explore a new park or play some tag football in the yard. They will remember the time spent in nature with you.
- Facilitate face time. If your teen is spending more time on his device than hanging out with friends or participating in sports or extracurricular activities, step up and facilitate more opportunities for face time with friends.
- Set electronic curfews for the whole family. No phones at dinner. Charge all phones in parent’s bedroom overnight. Everybody needs a break for mental health’s sake.
“There is good reason to think that smartphones and social media may have positive effects as well as negative effects,” writes Sarah Rose Cavanaugh in Psychology Today, in rebuttal to Twenge’s iGen research.10 “Routinely feeling connected to your social peers could have beneficial effects. …Teens can find other teens interested in the same social movements, connect with teens across the globe on interests like music and fashion, and feel embedded in a social network filled with meaning.”2
That’s the kind of digital connection parents can get behind, but it all comes down to communication — clear, open dialog between parents of iGen’ers.
Ana Homayoun, author of Social Media Wellness: Helping Teens and Tweens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World, writes in the New York Times that parents must shift the conversation with their teens away from the fear of “getting caught” being inappropriate online to the importance of having a healthy social life in real time, using self-control and what being safe online looks like. It’s imperative, she says for parents to “help young social media users realize that their online and real-life experiences are more intertwined than they may think … Helping them think through how they might react or behave in certain scenarios can give them the confidence to make better decisions under pressure. Because in the end, teens’ online life choices can have real-world outcomes.”8
1 Lenhart, Amanda “Teens, Social Media and Technology.” The Pew Research Center. April 9, 2015.
2 Twenge, Jean. “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic. September 2017.
3 Geher, Glenn. “The Mental Health Crisis Is Upon the Internet Generation.” Psychology Today. July 23, 2018.
4 Ehmke, Rachel. “How Using Social Media Effects Teenagers.” The ChildMind Institute. Childmind.org. N.d. Accessed September 15, 2017.
5 “Kids These Days.” The Nature Conservancy. Nature.org N.d. Accessed September 17, 2017.
6 Homayoun, Ana. “The Secret Social Media Lives of Teenagers.” New York Times. June 7, 2017.
7 Cohen, Danielle. “Why Kids Need to Spend Time in Nature.” Childmind.org. Accessed September 17, 2017.
8 Schrobsdorf, Susanna. “There’s A Startling Increase in Major Depression Among Teens in the U.S.” TIME Magazine. November 15, 2016.
9 Richtel, Matt. “Are Teenagers Replacing Drugs with Smartphones?” New York Times. March 13, 2017.
10 Cavanaugh, Sarah Rose. “No. Smartphones are not Ruining a Generation.” August 6, 2017.