The Atlantic Asks: “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”

1920I have always been skeptical of magazine articles that diagnose or psychoanalyze an entire generation. Even with a healthy dose of skepticism, Jean M. Twenge’s article, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation,” is worth a read.

The argument is straight-forward:

“Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy.

“There’s not a single exception. All 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. Admittedly, 10 hours a week is a lot. But those who spend six to nine hours a week on social media are still 47 percent more likely to say they are unhappy than those who use social media even less. The opposite is true of in-person interactions. Those who spend an above-average amount of time with their friends in person are 20 percent less likely to say they’re unhappy than those who hang out for a below-average amount of time.”

I can imagine the counter-argument: this is all correlation. Perhaps depression leads to more social media time, not the other way round. Twenge gets very, very close to direct proof: “One study asked college students with a Facebook page to complete short surveys on their phone over the course of two weeks. They’d get a text message with a link five times a day, and report on their mood and how much they’d used Facebook. The more they’d used Facebook, the unhappier they felt, but feeling unhappy did not subsequently lead to more Facebook use.”

IMG_4099The second main point of the article is that those born after 1995 are more likely to delay adulthood in all sorts of ways, some positive, some negative. There is a less of a push to drink alcohol, to begin driving, to have sex. In fact, the teen birth rate has plummeted, “down 67 percent since its modern peak, in 1991.”

This would be good if the rates of depression and suicide had also fallen. They haven’t: evidence of rising levels of anxiety and depression has been widely documented, from Australia to the UK. Twenge notes that “Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011.” So: this generation, at least in the English-speaking world, is less likely to hang out with friends, less likely to have a job; more likely to be sleep-deprived, and more likely to be unhappy.

If Snapchat and Instagram are directly leading to growing unhappiness among young people, are there some who are benefiting from this situation? Twenge has at least a partial answer: “A recently leaked Facebook document indicated that the company had been touting to advertisers its ability to determine teens’ emotional state based on their on-site behavior, and even to pinpoint ‘moments when young people need a confidence boost.'” This is ugly stuff. “Facebook acknowledged that the document was real,” Twenge writes, “but denied that it offers ‘tools to target people based on their emotional state.'”

I don’t like the title of the article, but chances are Twenge didn’t write it. So I’ll move on. Assuming the link between smartphones and unhappiness is real, what should we do as parents and educators? It’s not fair to ask the person ringing the alarm to also put out the fire. Still, Twenge’s prescription is limited to a single sentence: “Some mild boundary-setting could keep kids from falling into harmful habits.”

One question I have as a teacher: is screen time at school part of the problem? Or is the crisis limited to the alienating effects of social media? How unhealthy is school-related use of a screen?

And I wonder if the digitalization of education at school functions to validate teen use of social media outside of school.

I worry that it will be a generation before we know the answers to these questions. In the meantime, I could imagine school administrators might think twice about allowing smartphones to be used on campus, though they are undeniably great tools for planning, scheduling, and working on homework. Every smartphone is a calendar, and email reader, and a calculator. How can we separate the helpful from the harmful?

A number of teachers I know are already sharing this article and talking about sharing it with our students when they return to school in a few weeks. I know most of the kids will reject its central premise. I wonder where that will leave us as a community, especially if teachers and administrators feel duty-bound to begin restricting cellphone use.

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One thought on “The Atlantic Asks: “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”

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  1. There is so much to respond to here, but I’ll start with one of your last questions. It has become very difficult for me as a parent to limit screen time since the amount of homework involving a computer and the use of course management systems, apps, etc. has increased so sharply. Yes, we adults spend a ton of time on screen (although Facebook makes me more and less happy by turns), but we are adults, not in the process of developing into one. Perhaps more intrusive counseling on how to take breaks from screens, limit social media to a set time or a few set times of day (even though that goes against the “notifications” structure of the thing), ensure that hands-on and outdoor activities are a part of each day?

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