Are smartphones really making our children sad?
US psychologist Jean Twenge, who has claimed that social media is having a malign affect on the young, answers critics who accuse her of crying wolf
Last week, the childrens commissioner, Anne Longfield, launched a campaign to help parents regulate internet and smartphone use at home. She suggested that the overconsumption of social media was a problem akin to that of junk-food diets. None of us, as parents, would want our children to eat junk food all the time double cheeseburger, chips, every day, every meal, she said. For those same reasons, we shouldnt want our children to do the same with their online time.
A few days later, former GCHQ spy agency chief Robert Hannigan responded to the campaign. The assumption that time online or in front of a screen is life wasted needs challenging. It is driven by fear, he said. The best thing we can do is to focus less on the time they spend on screens at home and more on the nature of the activity.
This exchange is just one more example of how childrens screentime has become an emotive, contested issue. Last December, more than 40 educationalists, psychologists and scientists signed a letter in the Guardian calling for action on childrens screen-based lifestyles. A few days later, another 40-odd academics described the fears as moral panic and said that any guidelines needed to build on evidence rather than scaremongering.
Faced with these conflicting expert views, how should concerned parents proceed? Into this maelstrom comes the American psychologist Jean Twenge, who has written a book entitled iGen: Why Todays 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.
If the books title didnt make her view clear enough, last weekend an excerpt was published in the American magazine the Atlantic with the emotive headline Have smartphones destroyed a generation? It quickly generated differing reactions that were played out on social media these could be broadly characterised as praise from parents and criticism from scientists. In a phone interview and follow-up emails, Twenge explained her conclusions about the downsides of the connected world for teens, and answered some of her critics.
The Atlantic excerpt from your book was headlined Have smartphones destroyed a generation? Is that an accurate reflection of what you think?
Well, keep in mind that I didnt write the headline. Its obviously much more nuanced than that.
So why did you write this book?
Ive been researching generations for a long time now, since I was an undergraduate, almost 25 years. The databases I draw from are large national surveys of high school and college students, and one of adults. In 2013-14 I started to see some really sudden changes and at first I thought maybe these were just blips, but the trends kept going.
Id never seen anything like it in all my years of looking at differences among generations. So I wondered what was going on.
What were these sudden changes for teens?
Loneliness and depressive symptoms started to go up, while happiness and life satisfaction started to go down. The other thing that I really noticed was the accelerated decline in seeing friends in person it falls off a cliff. Its an absolutely stunning pattern Id never seen anything like that. I really started to wonder, what is going on here? What happened around 2011-2012 [the survey data is a year or two behind] that would cause such sudden changes?
And you concluded these changes were being brought about by increased time spent online?
The high-school data detailed how much time teens spend online on social media and games and I noticed how that correlated with some of these indicators in terms of happiness, depression and so on.
I was curious not just what the correlations were between these screen activities, mental health and wellbeing, but what were the links with non-screen activities, like spending time with friends in person, playing sports, going to religious services, doing homework, all these other things that teens do?
And for happiness in particular, the pattern was so stark. Of the non-screen activities that were measured, they all correlated with greater happiness. All the screen activities correlated with lower happiness.
Youve called these post-millennials the iGeneration. What are their characteristics?
Im defining iGen as those born between 1995 and 2012 that latter date could change based on future data. Im reasonably certain about 1995, given the sudden changes in the trends. It also happens that 1995 was the year the internet was commercialised [Amazon launched that year, Yahoo in 1994 and Google in 1996], so if you were born in that year you have not known a time without the internet.
But the introduction of the smartphone, exemplified by the iPhone, which was launched in 2007, is key?
There are a lot of differences some are large, some are subtle, some are sudden and some had been building for a while but if I had to identify what really characterises them, the first influence is the smartphone.
iGen is the first generation to spend their entire adolescence with the smartphone. This has led to many ripple effects for their wellbeing, their social interactions and the way they think about the world.