Are smartphones making our teenagers lonely?

Some solid social science says… probably yes.  Great summary of their work from Jon Haidt and Jean Twenge:

So what does the PISA survey show? In a paper we just published in The Journal of Adolescence, we report that in 36 out of 37 countries, loneliness at school has increased since 2012. We grouped the 37 countries into four geographic and cultural regions, and we found the same pattern in all regions: Teenage loneliness was relatively stable between 2000 and 2012, with fewer than 18 percent reporting high levels of loneliness. But in the six years after 2012, rates increased dramatically. They roughly doubled in Europe, Latin America and the English-speaking countries, and rose by about 50 percent in the East Asian countries.

This synchronized global increase in teenage loneliness suggests a global cause, and the timing is right for smartphones and social media to be major contributors. But couldn’t the timing just be coincidental? To test our hypothesis, we sought data on many global trends that might have an impact on teenage loneliness, including declines in family size, changes in G.D.P., rising income inequality and increases in unemployment, as well as more smartphone access and more hours of internet use. The results were clear: Only smartphone access and internet use increased in lock step with teenage loneliness. The other factors were unrelated or inversely correlated.

These analyses don’t prove that smartphones and social media are major causes of the increase in teenage loneliness, but they do show that several other causes are less plausible. If anyone has another explanation for the global increase in loneliness at school, we’d love to hear it. [emphasis mine]

All young mammals play, especially those that live in groups like dogs, chimpanzees and humans. All such mammals need tens of thousands of social interactions to become socially competent adults. In 2012 it was possible to believe that teens would get those interactions via their smartphones — far more of them, perhaps. But as data accumulates that teenage mental health has changed for the worse since 2012, it now appears that electronically mediated social interactions are like empty calories. Just imagine what teenagers’ health would be like today if we had taken 50 percent of the most nutritious food out of their diets in 2012 and replaced those calories with sugar.

So what can we do? We can’t turn back time to the pre-smartphone era, nor would we want to, given the many benefits of the technology. But we can take some reasonable steps to help teens get more of what they need.

One important step is to give kids a long period each day when they are not distracted by their devices: the school day. Phones may be useful for getting to and from school, but they should be locked up during the school day so students can practice the lost art of paying full attention to the people around them — including their teachers.

A second important step is to delay entry into social media, ideally keeping it entirely out of elementary and middle schools. At present, many 10- and 11-year-olds simply lie about their age to open accounts, and once that happens, other kids don’t want to be excluded, so they feel pressured to do the same.

I actually like that my 15-year old basically entirely eschews social media.  On the other hand, I’m presumably guilty of letting my 10-year old lie about her age, but’s really so she can mostly post cute photos of our dog, which really does seem to avoid the harms this article is talking about.  Or, even better, an outlet for her creative writing about velociraptors (now featuring stop-motion video!)  

 

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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