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When a media outlet poses an alarming, clickbait-y question as a headline, the answer is typically “no.” A recent question in The Atlantic is no exception.
“Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” asks a new piece by Jean Twenge. She portrays the generation born between 1995 and 2012 (which she calls iGen, but is usually called GenZ) as in the midst of a dystopian crisis: “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades,” she writes.
She’s not shy about declaring the cause:
“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.”
Though the piece was shared widely online, Twenge’s claims haven’t been as well-received among scholars, many of whom criticize her for cherry-picking data.
It raises the question: Is there evidence that smartphones have harmed – really harmed – the generation that is growing up with them?
Twenge is disturbed by several trends among GenZ. One is a rise in suicide. But she’s been getting pushback because there is not good evidence for a link between suicide and smartphone and social media use. Even evidence for a correlation between them is mixed, at best. Though it’s true that suicide rates among teens have been increasing, as she points out, they’re rising for middle-aged and older adults, too.
It’s a remarkable mischaracterization to portray the suicide crisis as a “teen thing.” The larger tends across generations also make smartphones and social media a less likely culprit.
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There’s also not compelling evidence for a link between smartphones and depression and mental health problems. A recent large study I conducted with a representative sample of Florida youth found that screen use was a weak predictor. This study surveyed more than 6,000 young people, asking about their use of screens as well as their aggression, mental health and grades.
For most outcomes, such as risky sexual behaviors, disordered eating or low grades, smartphones weren’t a predictor at all. For depression, there was no link up to six hours of screen use a day.
After that six-hour mark, tiny correlations exist between screens and depression, but they are so small that it’s not clear even excessive screen use is a good predictor.
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Likewise, a massive study from the United Kingdom found that moderate use of screens was not associated with mental health problems among young people. Even excessive screen use was a poor predictor. The study found that it has less than one third the predictive value of skipping breakfast, for example.
And evidence from other studies suggest that it is less that using technology is associated with depression and more how one uses technology that can be problematic. In fact, authentic presentations of oneself are actually associated with improved well-being. However, a tendency to compare oneself negatively with others online can be associated with depression – of course, that’s probably true for real life, too.
But just as worrisome as this blurring of causation is Twenge characterizing an entire generation in such sweeping terms. Previously, she arguably played a role in the widespread disparagement of millennials as narcissistic, self-indulgent and fragile. We see the same kind of rhetoric in countless pieces online: Millennials are killing chain restaurants. Millennials aren’t buying houses. All of them? None of them? Surely, there must be some millennials – even many! – who don’t fit these characterizations.
Twenge has since responded, saying she is trying to give voice to young people’s concerns, and I don’t doubt her good intent. There are aspects of her piece that we would be wise to pay attention to.
But worrying over screens distracts us from the real causes of suicide and mental illness. And this tendency to portray entire generations in crisis language does real harm to members of those generations.
Though it’s true that interesting social and cultural changes occur over time, variations exist between individuals and can be as striking as any similarities that exist across generational lines. The urge to catalog people into neat generational categories is fraught, no matter how many books those categories sell or how many clicks they generate.
Dr. Chris Ferguson (@CJFerguson1111) is a professor of psychology at Stetson University and a Fellow of the American Psychological Association. He is coauthor of the book “Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong” and author of the mystery novel “Suicide Kings.” Bookmark Gray Matters. There are aspects of it that we would be wise to pay attention to.