Are smartphones destroying our kids? That’s the premise of an extensive article in September’s The Atlantic
The author, Jean Twenge, has been researching generational differences for 25 years, starting when she was a 22-year-old doctoral student in psychology. In this article she describes how the use of smartphones is so prevalent among the teen population, the generation she calls iGens, and how profound of an effect smartphones are having on social behavior, friendships, sex and more.
Her premise, based on extensive research findings, is that this generation is more comfortable online than out partying, and while physically safer, they’re on the brink of a mental health crisis.
She found that the iGens hang out much less with their friends most days, with the frequency dropping by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2015. Teens are dating less, with just 56 percent of high school seniors going out on dates in 2015, down from 85 percent for the previous generations. And they have more leisure time but waste it, spending more time in their room alone, on their phones, often distressed.
With less dating, sexual activity has dropped, which is one of the positive findings. Among ninth-graders, sexual activity has dropped by almost 40 percent from 1991. “The average teen now has had sex for the first time by the spring of 11th grade, a full year later than the previous generation.”
But Tewnge also found that the iGens’ maturity level has fallen. “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.”
While teen murder is down, suicides are up. “Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide. … Since 2007, the homicide rate among teens has declined, but the suicide rate has increased.”
The author’s research found that “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. … There’s not a single exception.”
All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all non-screen activities are linked to more happiness. Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who devote less time to social media. Admittedly, 10 hours a week is a lot. But those who spend six to nine hours a week on social media are still 47 percent more likely to say they are unhappy than those who use social media even less. The opposite is true of in-person interactions. Those who spend an above-average amount of time with their friends in person are 20 percent less likely to say they’re unhappy than those who hang out for a below-average amount of time.
Lastly, according to the author, the smartphone is reducing the number of hours teens sleep at night. Experts recommend about nine hours of sleep, but that number drops around the same time that most teens get a smartphone, with a large percentage dropping to less than seven hours, considered sleep-deprived. Fifty-seven percent more teens were sleep deprived in 2015 than in 1991 according to the author. One survey found that teens who go to social media sites every day are 19 percent more likely to be sleep-deprived and those who use their devices with screens right before bed are likely to get less sleep.
The article, accessible for free, provides a lot more details including some revealing graphs. Whether smartphones are good or bad may be debated, but it’s clear they’re profoundly changing teen behavior.