Yes, Smartphones Are Destroying a Generation, But Not of Kids

illustration by Geeky Owlet

Quickly, now: Go rip a smartphone out of the hands of the nearest teen. If you have a teen child of your own, you can start there—or if you have kids under 13, you can take away whatever device they’re presently using. Feel free to just tear your TV off of the wall, if that’s all you’ve got to turn off. And if you don’t have kids, snatch a phone from any teenager who happens to walk by.

If that level of panic feels overblown, then perhaps you missed the latest story to spread a message of tech alarm to the world’s online parents. Writing in The Atlantic, Jean Twenge warns that “the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.”

Beginning with its provocative title, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”, the article sets us up to feel hopeless about the way mobile and social media has turned Kids These Days into lonely, depressed screen addicts who are failing to advance along the established path to adulthood.

It’s not that Twenge’s got her story wrong; on the contrary, it’s precisely because she’s onto something that we need to be so careful about drawing the right conclusions from the evidence she cites. Even more crucial—and missing not just from Twenge’s work, but so many of these alarmist pieces—is the so what: what, exactly, are parents supposed to do about the problem?

Don’t worry, I’ll get there.

How unhappy are teens, anyhow?

But first, let’s look at whether things are really as dire as Twenge would have us believe. Her argument hinges on an apparent discontinuity in the generational trends she has observed across decades. “The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives,” Twenge argues, “[f]rom the nature of their social interactions to their mental health.”

Twenge drives much of her argument with data from the Monitoring the Future survey series, even though she and a co-author argued in a 2010 paper that “the MTF dataset does not measure anxiety and depression, so it is not possible to test changes in mental health using these data.”  Her alarm about teens being “seriously unhappy” is even more recent: Just two years ago, she and her colleagues made headlines with an academic paper finding that “recent adolescents reported greater happiness and life satisfaction than their predecessors.”

I don’t have anything like her level of familiarity with that data, but I couldn’t resist taking a peek at the data that paints a picture of teens in a screen-generated crisis. And what I saw looks quite different from the depression-fest that Twenge describes: on the contrary, levels of happiness and unhappiness are largely constant, though we may be heading into a very modest (though not unprecedented) dip .

Line chart shows teen response rates for "not happy" "pretty happy" and "very happy" have remained largely stable from 1997 through 2015

This hardly looks like the picture of adolescence in crisis: compared with the time series charts in Twenge’s piece (which do show some interesting discontinuities in adolescent lifestyles), there’s nothing here that screams “crisis.” I didn’t do as deep a dive into the data on teen loneliness, but a preliminary glance suggested a similar pattern (or rather, lack thereof).

But Twenge doesn’t just base her argument on happiness levels over time. She also argues that “[a]ll screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen 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.”

Yet look at the twelfth-grade data, and there’s no such effect. Teens report near identical levels of happiness regardless whether they’re on the higher or lower end of social media usage.

Bar chart of happiness levels shows near identical data for grade 12 students who use social media for more or less than 10 hours a week

Take a more granular look at the full range of usage, and it looks like the biggest risk of unhappiness is among those poor twelfth graders who don’t use social media at all. Quick! Someone get those kids a smartphone!

Column charts that shows happiness for grade 12 students who use social media for different amounts of time each week shows highest levels of "not happy" are reported by those who don't use social media at all.

If social media isn’t making kids depressed, then where’s the crisis? Twenge makes a lot of the declining independence of the American tween, which she backs up with data on how teens are having sex later and putting off getting their drivers’ licenses. Admittedly, I got neither licensed nor laid in high school, so maybe I’m missing something here, but…don’t we want kids to wait until they’re more mature before they risk pregnancy or collision? Neither of these seem like negative trends to me (and even Twenge concedes some are positive), so if you want to blame them on Steve Jobs, go ahead.

But let’s indulge this line of reasoning for a moment, and assume that it is a terrible injustice to America’s youth if their smartphones keep them so distracted that it’s not until grade 11 that they finally get around to giving up the sweet flower of their innocence. I’m still not convinced that smartphones are what’s driving the trends Twenge cites, and which she traces to the advent of the iPhone in 2007.

That was a bit of a head-scratcher for me, because I couldn’t imagine that too many parents rushed out to get their kids a first-generation iPhone, and the data backs me up. Teens didn’t get their hands on smart phones en masse until a few years after the iPhone was released. But that’s ok, because if you look at Twenge’s trendlines, it’s more like 2010 when all the delayed adulting starts to kick in.

So what happened between 2007 and 2010 to tee up a shift in teen lifestyles?

Social media happened. But it didn’t happen just—or even mainly—to teens. It happened to parents.

Look at this chart based on Pew data, tracking social network adoption from 2005 to 2009, the four years bracketing the introduction of the iPhone. Yes, teen social media usage continued to grow during this time, but at the same steady rate as usage grew among older Americans.Line charts show social networking usage for different age groups, 2005 to 2009

The fastest growth during that time was among young adults (18-29) and 30-to-49-year-olds. One year before the iPhone, only 6% of people aged 30-to-49 were on social networks. By 2009, that had leapt up to 44%: that’s absolutely explosive growth.

What does that have to do with teens? Well, let me give you another name for 18-to-49-year-olds: parents. While teens were old hands at social networking by that point, they were still stuck texting on their feature phones. Meanwhile, their parents started catching up on the social networking front—with the added opportunity of accessing LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter on their shiny new iPhones and Androids.

I’d love to tell you we used this shiny new tech to look up educational resources for our children, or play them classical music in utero. And sure, there was a bit of that. But you know what smartphones and social media are really great at? Tuning out your children.

I know, we all really enjoy reading articles about how it’s those evil smartphones that are destroying our children’s brains and souls. It lets us justify locking their devices up with parental monitoring tools, or cutting off their mobile plan when they fail to make the grade.

Fellow parents, it’s time for us to consider another possible explanation for why our kids are increasingly disengaged. It’s because we’ve disengaged ourselves; we’re too busy looking down at our screens to look up at our kids.

I know: it’s how I live myself. Children are super annoying—especially teenagers, I would say, now that I’ve got one. I would much rather spend half an hour playing Words with Friends on Facebook than spend it playing an inane board game with an 11-year-old who refuses to play by the rules. I would much rather spend an hour perusing Wonder Woman crafts on Pinterest than listening to my 13-year-old ramble on about anime. As a friend warned me when I first got pregnant, “children are simultaneously overwhelming and under-stimulating.” Why wouldn’t we want to be distracted from that?

All the way back in 1980—before Mark Zuckerberg was even a twinkle in his parents’ eyes— John Unger Zussman documented an experiment in parental distraction. In the mischievous way of psychological experiments, Zussman brought twenty sets of parents into his lab; each pair of parents had one toddler and one preschool-aged child. In a move that anticipated my obsession with Chicktionary during my own kids’ toddler years, Zussman and his colleagues asked the parents to spend ten minutes working on anagrams, so they could see what happened to their parenting style.

When parents were distracted, Zussman observed several changes in their parenting approach. First, parents shortened their interactions; with older children (though not toddlers), interaction time declined from 5.4 minutes (out of ten) to 3.8 minutes. Second, the quality of engagement declined: parents were more abrupt, more critical and less stimulating. “In general, positive behaviors such as interaction, responsiveness, support, and stimulation were reduced toward the older (preschool-age) children,” Unger notes, “[w]hile negative behaviors such as interference and criticism/pun- ishment were increased toward the younger children (toddlers).”

Zussman summarizes his findings with words that could just as easily apply to today’s smartphone-wielding parents:

Parents are, indeed, influenced by competing activity. They resort to a level of behavior that might be called “minimal parenting.” At this level of parenting, positive behaviors are regarded as expendable and are curtailed when parental load limits are reached. Although parents remain available to the children, they are slower to respond and interact with them for shorter periods, and their attention shifts rapidly among the two children and the task. They must continue to exert some control over the children, however, and negative behaviors may be increased in minimal parenting because they are seen as methods of obtaining rapid compliance.

This observation offers a competing explanation for the recent declines in adolescent independence that Twenge observes. Fostering independence takes work: someone has to teach the kid to drive, show them how to get to the mall, maybe prod them to make some friends and get outside. We may parody the work of parenting as a set of rules and consequences, but the work of encouraging positive behavior is just as (if not more important) than sanctioning the negative.

Zussman’s experiment suggests that when parents are distracted—as today’s parents are, perpetually, by our online lives—it’s the encouragement that suffers, more than the control. The result? Kids who stay inside their semi-gilded cages, because they don’t get the support they need to spread their wings.

It’s a fate I worry about with my own kids, who barely know what I look like without a device in my hands. If social media had been invented before I had kids, maybe I’d have realized that parenting would seriously interfere with my Twitter time, and given more thought to that trade-off.

But my firstborn is older than Facebook—a fact that blew their mind—though only just. My entire experience of parenthood has been lived in the tug-of-war between child and screen; my kids can’t remember a time when they didn’t have to compete with my iPhone in order to get my attention. Like many people, my constant screen interactions are a matter of professional obligation as well as personal taste, so I live life as a constant juggling act between the needs of my children and the distractions of social media.

And that juggling act, actually, is where we find the juicy opportunity to change things up a bit, and rethink the role that social media and smartphones are playing not just in our kids’ lives, but in our own. No, I don’t believe that smartphones are “destroying” a generation, and I’m somewhat insulted at that suggestion on my kids’ behalf.

But I do think that the concerns Twenge raises are valid (if overblown), if only because I constantly hear from parents who are struggling with their own version of these problems: Teens who are too busy online to come out of their room. Kids who are social butterflies on the Internet, but socially awkward in meatspace. Young adults who may be remarkably adept in front of a computer, but lack some of the practical life skills they’ll need when they stop away from the keyboard.

So what’s a parent to do? Well, I think we can do better than Twenge’s suggestions of instilling “the importance of moderation,” or “mild boundary-setting.” The off switch has its place, but if that’s all we have to offer our kids, we aren’t helping prepare them for what it means to live in a digital world.

Nor, for that matter, are we preparing ourselves: if we’ve let smartphones run roughshod over our lives, it’s not just because they offer respite from our annoying kids, but because they offer respite from our annoying selves.

That’s why it’s so important for us to both discover and model ways of being online that help our kids embrace the potential of social media, smartphones and whatever the next thing is to come along. (Pro tip: It’s virtual reality, bots, and cryptocurrency.)

My own research suggests that the best way we can do that is by embracing our role as digital mentors: actively encouraging our kids to use technology, but offering ongoing support and guidance in how to use it appropriately. I shared some highlights from that research in The Atlantic, actually (#irony), showing how kids who’ve been actively mentored by their parents actually have healthier relationships to technology than kids who’ve been set free in the wilds of the Internet, or conversely, had their online access tightly limited.

Mentoring your kids means letting go of a one-size-fits-all approach to kids’ tech use, and thinking instead about which specific online activities are enriching (or impoverishing) for your specific child. Mentoring means talking regularly with your kids about how they can use the Internet responsibly and joyfully, instead of slamming on the brakes. Mentor parents recognize that their kids need digital skills if they’re going to thrive in a digital world, so they invest in tech classes and coding camps. And of course, mentor parents embrace technology in their own lives—but thoughtfully, so they can offer guidance on the human (if not the technical) aspects of life online.

But that kind of nuanced approach is hard to embrace if you’re reeling from the unceasing warnings about how smartphones are “destroying” your kids. That’s why it’s time for us to stop paying attention to alarmist attacks on kids’ screen time—and instead pay attention to our kids.

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JSTOR Citations

Birth Cohort Differences in the Monitoring the Future Dataset and Elsewhere: Further Evidence for Generation Me—Commentary on Trzesniewski & Donnellan

By: Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell

Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol. 5, No. 1 (JANUARY 2010) pp. 81-88

Sage Publications, Inc. on behalf of Association for Psychological Science.

Situational Determinants of Parental Behavior: Effects of Competing Cognitive Activity

By: John Unger Zussman

Child Development , Vol. 51, No. 3 (Sep., 1980) pp. 792-800

Published by: Wiley on behalf of the Society for Research in Child Development

Alexandra Samuel is a technology writer, researcher and speaker. She is the author of Work Smarter with Social Media (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015), and is a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review and The Wall Street Journal. Alex holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Harvard University and a B.A. from Oberlin College. You can find her on Twitter as @awsamuel and on her own site, alexandrasamuel.com.

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