Life / Health

Being glued to smartphones is making teens unhappy, study finds

A steep drop in psychological well-being and self-esteem started around 2012. This was the year the percentage of Americans carrying smartphones crossed 50 per cent.

A new study found the more time teens spent looking at their smartphone screens, the less happy they reported being.

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A new study found the more time teens spent looking at their smartphone screens, the less happy they reported being.

Something is making teens really unhappy.

In Ontario, the rates of high school students seeking mental-health therapy and taking medication for depression or anxiety have about doubled since 2000; incidence of “moderate or severe psychological distress” went up by a third just between 2013 and 2015. A similar thing has been seen stateside.

What could have changed so much in such a short time? According to a new study out Monday in the journal Emotion, there’s just one prime suspect: Smartphones.

Drawing on data collected from one million Grade 8, 10 and 12 students in the U.S. between 1991 and 2016, the paper found a steep drop in psychological well-being, self-esteem and life satisfaction starting in 2012. That was the year the percentage of Americans carrying smartphones crossed 50 per cent. The trend was a reversal of the overall increase in happiness since the 1990s.

Tellingly, the more time teens spent looking at their phone screens, the less happy they reported being. This was especially true of younger kids. The ones glued to their phones for six hours a day or more were about twice as likely to be unhappy than those who kept their use to one or two hours.

But don’t smash your child’s iPhone just yet. Students who had no screen time at all were also unhappy. But since almost everyone has a smartphone these days, there were probably other things going on with that group that weren’t captured in the data, said lead author and San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge.

That could be extreme poverty, unstable living situations, special needs, or just isolation from the high school social scene. For today’s teens, Twenge said, “social media is mandatory” — or at least it feels that way.

Twenge said that although this new data doesn’t prove smartphones are the cause of the youth mental-health crisis, the time frame is so short, and the effect so dramatic, that it’s unlikely to be a coincidence.

“By far the largest change in teens’ lives (since 2012) is the ubiquity of the smartphone,” she said. “The economy was improving, so that doesn’t fit. Genetics can’t change that fast. Bad family environments, trauma, those things tend to happen at the same rate per year.”

If you accept that smartphones are making kids sad (and not everyone does; see the storm of controversy surrounding Twenge’s September article in The Atlantic, Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?), the question of why they have that effect remains.

Past studies have linked the blues to social media. This one asked teens to recall how much time they spend on various phone activities — texting, video chatting, social media, surfing and gaming. What they were doing on their phones didn’t seem to make a difference to happiness, Twenge said. It’s what they were not doing when they were hunched, alone, in front of a phone.

They’re not spending as much time with friends face-to-face and, crucially, they’re sleeping less (nothing like a bleeping, bright device on your pillow to keep you awake).

So what is a parent to do? Twenge tentatively suggested waiting until at least age 14 to get your child a smartphone, maybe a little longer if your child is particularly emotionally sensitive. After that, keep their use to an hour or two a day, and turn it off at night to preserve sleep — without getting into a “wrestling match” (good luck).

“Moderation would suggest you do it about average. That’s still not great, because the average is so high,” she said.

Ultimately, she wants to see phone companies make it easier for parents, the account holders, to control when and how much teens and kids use their phones, and which apps they use.

“People always say, ‘Why should Apple do that? It’s parents’ responsibility. Well, it is parents’ responsibility. And they need better tools.”

ASKING APPLE

Jean Twenge, the author of the study on smartphones and teen mental health, helped draft this month’s open letter to Apple, asking for more research into their products’ impacts on children and youth, and more parental control options. It was signed by the investment firm JANA Partners and the California teachers’ retirement fund, which together own $2-billion worth of Apple shares.  

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