“If I had to tell you what invention I don’t like I would say that I don’t like the phone. I don’t like the phone because my parent[s] are on their phone every day. A phone is sometimes a really bad [habit]. I hate my mom’s phone and I wish she never had one. That is [an] invention that I don’t like” (Torres, 2018).
This is the response from a 2nd grader when asked to write about an invention they don’t like. We have somehow let smartphones shift from serving as a useful appliance, designed to improve our lives, to something more along the lines of an unhealthy addiction.
The rate of technology adoption is increasing at a faster rate than ever before (Molla, 2018). It’s almost inconceivable to think Apple released the first iPhone a touch over 10 years ago and today 95% of teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 in the US report having a smartphone or access to one (Anderson & JingJing, 2018). And of course, their connectivity isn’t passive: 45% of US teenagers report being online on a “near-constant basis.” This likely won’t be news to many parents, 94% of which report taking at least one action to manage their child’s technology usage (Bethune & Lewan, 2017). On top of that, around 50% of parents say that regulating their child’s screen time is a constant battle, feel like their child is attached to their devices, and feel disconnected from their families even when they are together as a result of technology.
Born after 1995, iGen is the first generation to have their entire lives defined by hyper connectivity, spending significantly more time on new media screen activities and less time on non-screen activities than any previous generation. Unfortunately, studies show that teenagers who spend more time on screens are much more likely to report mental health issues compared to their less device dependent counterparts (Twenge, Joiner, Rogers, & Martin, 2017). The general consensus in the science community is this uptick in on screen activities likely accounts for at least some of the corresponding increases in depression and suicide. While mental illness can have many sources, the irrefutable correlation between increased screen time and feelings of loneliness, fear of missing out and upward social comparisons, and cyber bulling — especially pronounced for teenage girls — is extremely worrisome (Twenge, 2017). New research on adolescents with internet addition suggests these effects on depression and suicide rates may be the result of actual chemical imbalances in the brain stemming from this shift in lifestyle (Cohut, 2017). Within the study, participants with more severe internet and smartphone addiction had more problems not only with depression, but also with stress, anxiety, impulsive behavior, and sleeplessness.
Mental health is clearly an issue, but what happens to social relationships when an entire generation grows up without knowing what a disconnected life looks like? How do they learn to have difficult conversations? To read the body language associated with words? To develop love and empathy for others? These are the kinds of questions researchers have started to investigate, and the early signs are worrisome. We’ve seen a 40% decline in the markers for empathy among college students in the past 20 years, most of it within the past 10 years (Turkle, 2016). It’s telling that we’ve introduced the term “phubbing” into our lexicon to describe the habit of snubbing someone in favor of a mobile phone (Ducharme, 2018). Unfortunately, as “phubbing” becomes commonplace, research shows that it actually threatens our fundamental needs of belongingness, self-esteem, meaningful existence, and control. Even just the presence of a phone on the table during a conversation has been shown to have a negative impact on social relationships, making people feel less connected to each other (Ducharme, 2018). This is clearly an issue, but so is the fact that children aren’t even getting together (in real life, anyways) in the first place. The number of teenagers who hang out with their friends on a nearly daily basis has dropped by more than 40% since the year 2000 (Twenge, 2017). And now we know, even when they do get together, they often experience less meaningful interactions than previous generations.
With uninterrupted access to social media, email, texting, and online games, kids are also growing up with infinite streams of potential activity, resulting in frequent content switching and multi-tasking. And once again, research shines a gloomy light on the situation. While it may seem efficient, frequent multi-tasking has been associated with depression, anxiety, and difficulty reading human emotions (Turkle, 2016). Although we believe ourselves adept at multi-tasking, research tells us it takes 25 minutes on average for us to return to a task after an interruption (Sullivan & Thompson, 2013). This means that every quick check of the phone isn’t just a quick break, but may be costing us hours of deep concentration every day. Not a great realization considering kids now pick up their phones an average of 150 times a day (Brandon, 2017). This also gives members of iGen the ability to indefinitely bypass the uncomfortable construct previously known as boredom. Picking up their phones during lull periods may be enjoyable, or even second nature at this point, but it mitigates the positive effects stemming from boredom, like self-reflection, creativity and innovation (Turkle, 2016).
Technology creation and adoption is moving faster than ever before in history, making it difficult for academic research to keep up. But early results bear worrisome news. We don’t know what the long-term effects will be, but it’s becoming abundantly clear that we’re moving in the wrong direction. There are now a wide-array of issues our children (and ourselves) have to deal with when it comes to smartphones, and it’s getting harder and harder to switch off. So, what should we do about it? I don’t believe the answer is the removal of smartphones or somehow halting our rapid advancement of technology. This is the world we live in, and in many ways we’re extremely fortunate for it. Aspects of technology advancement have been truly positive, helping us detect and cure diseases, level the information playing field, and solve massive human problems. But, clearly it’s not all good, and we need to be more informed of the negative so we can right the ship. We need to better understand the harmful effects of over-usage, our own consumption patterns, and the psychological tricks tech companies are using to suck us in. We can then use this knowledge to help our children improve their relationship with their devices, apply pressure to tech companies to better understand and iterate on their products, and create new technology designed to help our children flourish.
More on this coming soon…
Anderson, M. & JingJing, J. (2018, May 31). Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from: http://www.pewinternet.org/2018/05/31/teens-social-media-technology-2018
Bethune, S. & Lewan, E. (2017, Feb 23). APA’s Survey Finds Constantly Checking Electronic Devices Linked to Significant Stress for Most Americans. APA. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2017/02/checking-devices.aspx
Brandon, J. (2017, Apr 17). The Surprising Reason Millennials Check Their Phones 150 Times a Day. Inc. Retrieved from: https://www.inc.com/john-brandon/science-says-this-is-the-reason-millennials-check-their-phones-150-times-per-day.html
Cohut, M. (2017, Dec 17). Yes, smartphone addiction does harm your teen’s mental health. Medical News Today. Retrieved from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320183.php
Ducharme, J. (2018, Mar 29). ‘Phubbing’ Is Hurting Your Relationships. Here’s What It Is. Time. Retrieved from: http://time.com/5216853/what-is-phubbing/
Molla, R. (2018, May 30). Mary Meeker’s 2018 internet trends report: All the slides, plus analysis. Recode. Retrieved from: https://www.recode.net/2018/5/30/17385116/mary-meeker-slides-internet-trends-code-conference-2018
Sullivan, B. & Thompson, H. (2013, May 5). Brain, Interrupted. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/05/opinion/sunday/a-focus-on-distraction.html
Torres, K. (2018). Parents Are Reacting To A Letter Written By A Second Grader Who Wishes Cell Phones Weren’t Invented. Buzzfeed. Retrieved from: https://www.buzzfeed.com/kristatorres/a-second-grader-wrote-a-letter-saying-i-hate-my-moms-phone
Turkle, S. (2016). Reclaiming conversation: The power of talk in a digital age. New York, NY: Penguin.
Twenge, M., Joiner, T., Rogers, M., & Martin, G. (2017, Nov 14). Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time. Clinical Psychological Science, 6(1), 3–17.
Twenge, M. (2017, Sep). Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? The Atlantic. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/