Anyone with a smartphone lives in fear of missing out at some point.
I’ve personally watched my Boomer parents’ eyes glaze over as they sit at the dinner table and scroll through Facebook. As a Gen X/Millennial Cusper (a Xennial, if you will), I deleted Facebook and Twitter from my phone, but still compulsively update Apple News.
The truth is, we feel drawn to our mobile devices because they deliver an exciting emotional rush every time we hold those shiny little computers in our hands and reveal what’s new in the world.
Yet my parents and I — and everyone else who became a teenager before high-speed internet hit most American households — have something that today’s youth don’t: the luxury of knowing what it’s like to be still.
If you keep a phone or mobile device close by, then you know it’s always beeping, buzzing, or begging for your attention. When new technology comes out (think: radio, television, video games), it tends to draw us away from our innermost selves. But constant access to the internet is something else altogether because it can obliterate the solitude humans have known for millennia — downtime that studies show is essential for thriving.
Now, new research suggests this relentless background noise may take a disturbing toll on teen mental health and emotional well-being.
This is the upsetting premise of Jean Twenge’s new book 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. Twenge defines iGen, otherwise known as Generation Z, as beginning in 1995 — “the year the internet was born.” That’s when eBay, Amazon, and GeoCities all launched, and when Microsoft released the first version of Internet Explorer.
Twenge, a San Diego State University psychology professor, argues that certain studies and large-scale mental health surveys of adolescents and teens indicate their emotional well-being began deteriorating in the last 10 years. The downward trend looks particularly startling in 2012 — the year, Twenge notes, that more than 50 percent of American households owned a smartphone.
The prevalence of depression for adolescents and teens increased between 2005 and 2014. The suicide rate also rose sharply between 2007 and 2015 while the number of children and teens admitted to hospitals for suicidal thoughts or self-harm doubled during roughly the same time period. Twenge’s analysis of national survey data indicates that teens started feeling more lonely in 2013, after declining modestly in previous years. While historical data show that emotional well-being ebbs and flows from generation to generation, Twenge has been shocked by how abruptly and starkly iGen began showing signs of distress.
Plenty of teens in the mid-’90s were also struggling, and the stigma surrounding mental health treatment was far greater then. Yet you could often count on moments of silence to provide refuge from the chaos of adolescence. Even on my busiest days, playing in weekend soccer tournaments, trying to catch up on the never-ending homework, and going out with friends, my free time wasn’t broken into a random collection of minutes defined by pings and clicks.
I could spend hours making mix tapes, listening to Loveline on the radio, watching Buffy, and even going online via a painfully slow dial-up modem. I routinely immersed myself in a single activity without much disruption. And when all of that ceased to entertain, what followed next was often a reverie of daydreaming, overwrought journaling, or jags of creativity.
To be sure, mine was a privileged existence, even if it didn’t always feel that way in comparison to my wealthy classmates. Many teens — then and now — don’t experience that quiet because they must work, watch siblings, or have no privacy of their own. Those without that calm now also have to contend with the exhausting demands of living a digital life.
While I may have feared missing out on social outings organized by the cool kids on the weekends, I wouldn’t hear about those till Monday, if ever. I didn’t have to relive the exclusion in perpetuity thanks to social media. And when I was invited to hang out with the cool kids, I never worried about capturing the perfect selfie to share online.
More importantly, in those moments of boredom, silence, and yes, anxiousness, there were only so many ways I could avoid being alone with myself. Crossing the threshold into your own mind and spirit — getting lost in a world that is of your making — can be a rite of passage for the young. But today’s teens may not understand that experience; they’ve been thrust into the world with social media and a smartphone as their constant companions — for better and worse.
The adults in their lives may worry about “screen time,” cyberbullying, and porn, but no one is necessarily teaching teens how to be alone with their thoughts, or why that’s important in the first place. Parents probably take that skill and knowledge for granted and may not want to admit that it’s difficult for them to unplug, too.
I don’t believe that social media and smartphones are boogeymen that snatch children’s souls.
If this sounds like an Old Person Rant about how the kids today have got it all wrong, rest assured this isn’t a lecture. I know that each generation is successively worried about the next, convinced that technological innovation keeps removing us, inch by inch, from our humanity.
This isn’t moral panic, either. I don’t believe that social media and smartphones are boogeymen out to snatch children’s souls. Both aspects of technology have transformed our ability to communicate and connect in undeniably positive ways. Still, I’m troubled by the research featured in iGen suggesting that today’s youth are on the brink of an alarming mental health crisis. Numerous signs point to phones and social media as potential culprits.
“What is most worrying about these trends is how pervasive they are,” Twenge told me. “They show up in the most serious outcomes like suicide, but also in symptoms of depression, anxiety, loneliness, happiness, and life satisfaction.”
Twenge acknowledges that she can’t prove a cause-and-effect relationship between the widespread use of smartphones and worsening mental health for teens. But she does persuasively argue against possible explanations like homework load and the Great Recession by looking at the onset of mental health trends, the timing of external events, and whether those are linked to negative effects on a person’s well-being.
Mental illness deserves attention
Suicide deserves attention
Addiction deserves attention
We need to pay more attention to mental health
— Buddy Project (@ProjectBuddy) August 28, 2017
Sleep deprivation, which can lead to symptoms related to anxiety, depression, and suicidal behavior, is on the rise. That might explain heightened feelings of despair, but guess why teens may not be sleeping as much? Nighttime use of electronic media looks partly to blame, according to research.
Twenge has her share of critics who argue that she’s cherry-picked data to prove her thesis. Some research indicates that social media and smartphones can help people develop positive connections and traits, but other studies reveal a potentially negative effect on mental health and happiness.
It’s essential that future research answer, as conclusively as possible, whether moderate or obsessive social media and smartphone use leads to negative mental health outcomes. In the meantime, we must find a middle ground between condescending to teens about their use of technology and dismissing concern about that trend as alarmist.
When I recently spoke to Gabby Frost, a 19-year-old who founded the Buddy Project, a suicide and self-harm prevention initiative, about her experience with smartphones and social media, she shared a bittersweet perspective.
The internet helped a shy and anxious Frost form relationships as an adolescent and teenager. She even founded an influential nonprofit organization that relies on digital technology. But at the same time, she looked back on the years she’s spent tethered to her phone and recalled how it separated her from family, subjected her to painful online harassment, and weakened her attention span.
“I feel like being alone is definitely a hard thing to kind of grasp.”
“I feel like being alone is definitely a hard thing to kind of grasp,” she said. “We were given technology and grew up with it. We learned the phone culture from our siblings and parents. I feel like we need help from the older generation, or people our age who get it, that we should not be on the phone 24/7.”
Frost makes an effort to put her phone away for long stretches of time so she can paint, craft, or listen to music while traveling. These “tangents” often bring new ideas or revelations, a sensation Frost is still learning to appreciate.
Teens can come up with their own strategies, but ignoring their phones for a few hours at a time is a good start. Talking to a parent or trusted adult about ways to create and experience solitude is also smart. For some people, especially those coping with anxiety and depression, being alone with your thoughts isn’t always pleasant, so exploring therapy or yoga and meditation practices could help manage those fears. Writing about how you feel on days with and without your phone and social media could help articulate feelings you didn’t even know you had — and provide convincing evidence about the emotional effects of both habits.
Teens have forever to spend on the internet but only a relatively short period during adolescence and young adulthood to be unapologetically immersed in understanding who they are and who they want to become. When they think of FOMO, I hope what comes to mind aren’t the Insta posts, Snapchat stories, and viral Twitter threads. Those have value, but they also produce a never-ending stream of notifications and updates that distract teens from something irreplaceable: the chance to reflect, create, and dream.
If you take one message from this Old, let it be to never surrender those quiet moments to the banality of the internet. Trust me: That’s a skill you’re going to need for the rest of your life.
If you want to talk to someone about what you’re feeling, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here is a list of international resources.