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depression

Are Smartphones Making Kids More Depressed?

Young woman using cell phone to send text message on social network at night. Closeup of hands with computer laptop in background

We often worry about how unhealthy social media and screens are for kids  growing up right now. As a former teacher, I used to say this all the time–I would often observe my students with their faces lit up by the glare of phones, engaging in entirely different activities than I remember doing as a kid and teen.

I’m not a scientist or sociologist, but a lot of my observations may be backed up by science, especially considering this study by Jean M. Twenge—whose forthcoming book was recently excerpted at The Atlantic.

Yes, it’s true kids these days talk on Snapchat more often than they do in person, she notes—and this is a reality I can attest to, considering I would see my students in homeroom text each other while sitting right next to each other, (and yes, I would reprimand them for this.) “[Athena] told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone,” she writes. “That’s just the way her generation is, she said. ‘We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.'”

Twenge analyzed generational data going back to the 1930s, saying she “had never seen anything like it.” She dubbed the kids born between 1995 and 2012 iGens, because many grow up with smartphones and literally can’t remember a time before the internet.

Here’s what she found:

Depression and suicide rates have gone up since 2011. She said that it’s “the worst mental-health crisis in decades,” and is convinced you can link these stats to phones.

She explained that many kids are “more comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party.” In some ways, this means they are less likely to get into alcohol-related accidents, but are also more prone to depression and loneliness, adding that “12th-graders in 2015 were going out less often than eighth-graders did as recently as 2009.”

This also means less sex. For some parents, this is a relief, but it will have ramifications later on in life–which we will be witness to; apparently, the sexual activity rate for teens “has been cut by almost 40 percent since 1991.” An interesting anecdote Twenge found is that teens don’t relate to movies like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” anymore, because independence isn’t as important to them in a symbolic way.

I showed that movie to my seniors, who were bored to death by it, so her point certainly resonates.

But there’s another side to it, too. In many ways, while teens may be less interested in driving as she wrote, their phones give them a kind of independence and access to community that previous generations never had. While they are perhaps partying less, they are at once more educated about gender and sex stereotypes, while also capable of talking to whoever they want whenever—online, they can find peers who share any characteristic, no matter how esoteric or unique.

That being said, the statistics she cites should alarm us: “Those who play sports, go to religious services, or even do homework more than the average teen cut their risk significantly.” She also said teens who spend three or more hours a day on a smartphone “are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide, such as making a suicide plan.” In 2011, she noted that “for the first time in 24 years, the teen suicide rate was higher than the teen homicide rate.” Scary stuff.

It definitely makes you wonder what this means for human relationships, like marriage and parenthood, in the future. While every parent has to make their own choices regarding their kid’s screen usage, studies like these are useful to read to help you make these decisions.

If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or visit their website.

This post is part of the Here.Now series, which seeks to destigmatize mental health,
and is made possible by UJA-Federation of New York and The Jewish Board.
You can find other educational mental health resources here.

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