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Are Smartphones Causing Depression in Kids?

The jury’s still out, but compelling evidence may sway parents to pay more attention to the connection between phones and their child’s behavior.

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When Mae first picks up the phone, her voice is quiet. “Well,” she starts slowly, choosing her words carefully as I ask how she feels when she clicks through Snapchat and sees a group of friends hanging out without her. “If they post things and I’m just at home… sometimes it makes me feel a little sad.”

Mae, who’s 13, got her phone a little over a year ago, just after she turned 12. “Most kids get them in fifth or sixth grade,” she says of her classmates in Boulder. “I don’t really post on Snapchat or Instagram, but I go on them. Normally I’m just texting my friends or watching Netflix.”

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On days when she’s not in school, Mae wanders between her bedroom and the living room, scrolling between apps on her iPhone or watching videos, sometimes for as long as six hours in a day. “On weekdays I don’t do it as much,” she says. In a lot of ways, this makes Mae no different than most other teenagers in the United States today—those born between 1995 and 2012 are identified as “iGen,” a term coined by research psychologist Dr. Jean Twenge, a specialist in behavioral differences between generations.

Mae and most of her peers have known the iPhone their entire cognitive lives. They’re “digital natives,” explains clinical psychologist Dr. Brett Kennedy, co-director of the Digital Media Treatment and Education Center (DTEC) in Boulder. “Anyone born at this time will have grown up in a world influenced from birth by digital technology and devices.”

The extent of this influence, however, is up for debate. Some researchers are pointing toward smartphones as the root of recent teenage depression and suicide escalation; others see such technology use as a symptom of deeper-seeded issues that need to be addressed.

Links to Unstable Mental Health?

Twenge, who last year wrote iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, has now spent years researching the ways smartphones have changed and molded today’s generation of kids. She believes its effects to be profound and alarming, considering in particular the many uncanny correlations she’s discovered between smartphone use and mental health.

Starting around 2011 is when Twenge first noticed more teens were starting to report they felt lonely and depressed in national surveys. “These were sudden and large changes, very different from the gradual changes I was used to seeing as a generations researcher. They didn’t line up with changes in the economy, which was improving after 2011, so I puzzled over why they might be occurring.”

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It was then that Twenge recognized the other big societal shift that had occurred around 2011. It was the same year smartphone ownership surpassed 50 percent in the United States. “This fundamental shift in how teens were spending their leisure time—toward online communication and away from face-to-face communication and sleep—seemed like a plausible explanation for why depression increased so suddenly,” she says.

When Mae was just starting elementary school, her older brother Ted got his first phone, an old-school T-9 flip phone. “It was a safety thing,” says their mom, Ellen. “And you know what? On the third day of school, their [brother Sam] fell and cracked his head open.”

Ellen has watched her three kids—now 13, 15, and 16 years old—all process smartphone ownership differently. Ted used his own Bar Mitzvah money to upgrade to a smartphone in seventh grade, back in 2013. “He was one of the few kids that had one then,” Ellen recalls. “But to this day, he forgets about it; it isn’t essential to him.”

For Sam, on the other hand, “It’s just stuck to him,” Ellen says. “He’s the one going through some anxiety and depression; he is completely addicted. He gets angry [when I take his phone away]—that’s the way he feels he connects to his friends.”

Kennedy, who has treated teenagers for a variety of technology addictions, says many studies support conclusions that “digital media overuse” (exceeding 2 hours of recreational digital media use per day on smartphones, tablets, and computers) is correlated with increased mental health issues like depression, self-harming behaviors, suicidality, anxiety, etc., in addition to a lower overall sense of well-being. “We see that the connections young people have on social media may be less emotionally satisfying and they may feel more socially isolated, which is a causal factor for depression.”

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Alongside depression, teenage suicide rates have risen dramatically in the past decade. Since 2011, according to reporting conducted by The Denver Channel in September 2018, the pediatric intensive care unit at Children’s Hospital Colorado has seen a 300 percent increase in patients seeking treatment for suicidal behaviors. Girls, according to Twenge, are bearing the brunt of this rise in depressive symptoms; from 2012 to 2015 girls’ depressive symptoms increased 50 percent while boys’ increased by 21 percent. And in Colorado, these symptoms are sometimes compounded by less-than-adequate mental health care. A Mental Health America report released in October 2018 ranked the state as 48th out of the 50 states and Washington D.C. for quality of youth mental health services.

Watching her children grow up in a social speed different than her own has been challenging for Ellen. “I think they just have this constant sense that they’ll miss something,” she says. Watching Mae wrestle with her own online presence and feeling left out or excluded from groups posting on social media has been difficult to watch. “I mean, that happened to us too, as children, but it was harder to get that information. Now it’s right here in front of you all the time.”

A Campaign to Go Offline

Late last August, on the third Thursday night of school, hundreds of Littleton students gathered around a makeshift memorial. They were mourning the death of two students—an Arapahoe High School junior and a Powell Middle School eighth-grader—who had both committed suicide earlier in the week, each just a day apart. Both were avid social media users and announced their deaths over social apps just moments before killing themselves; though peers immediately reported their “snaps” to the police once they realized what was about to ensue, neither student was able to be saved. Some middle-schoolers even rushed to the location the eighth-grader posted about, but he’d already shot himself.

At the time, Littleton’s double suicide was the latest incident in a wave of Colorado teens taking their own lives. It prompted 25 Littleton students to form a challenge group they dubbed “Offline October,” where they campaigned for other teens to join them in deleting all social media apps from their phones. “We believe that social media has a negative impact on today’s youth and has contributed to many recent suicides,” their mission statement reads. “Social media has become a dictating force in people’s lives.”

The campaign struck a chord around the world and hundreds of teenagers joined in. After “Offline October’s” first iteration, The Denver Post reported a survey of 400 teen participants found 50 percent had been previously spending as many as three hours a day on social media and 50 percent had been depressed. To continue building upon the global momentum, the group hosted social media-less gatherings throughout the year and repeated the social media blackout again in October 2018.

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Weighing the Good and the Bad

Ellen doesn’t want to deny some of the good that’s come from having three kids with smartphones. “I love it for the accessibility,” she says. “And they know if I text or call them, they answer me.” But the negative aspects, she can’t ignore. “I feel like there’s less reading of books, less drawing, less creativity, for sure. I don’t like that. The only way to get that now is to take away [the phones] … you have to force those things because they’ll stay on their phones all day long, in their rooms.”

Twenge points out in her book that the self-isolation smartphones encourage is actually making kids physically more safe than ever before—teen homicide is at an all-time low, drug use is down, kids are having sex later—but, all things considered, teens are mentally more vulnerable, as the increased depression and suicide rates may illustrate. “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones,” she wrote in The Atlantic last year.

A Deeper Issue?

Nir Eyal—an expert and best-selling author in the intersection of psychology, technology, and business who has extensively highlighted some of the smartphone’s benefits on iGen—is not convinced that today’s teenage woes are linked as strongly to smartphones as Twenge has concluded. Smartphones, he thinks, are just a superficial issue; demonizing them merely bandages an internal wound that’ll continue to bleed.

Ever since the rebellious teen debuted in American society, he argues “we’ve thought every teenager’s brain is temporarily broken.” Whether from the influence of rock ‘n’ roll, the distribution of TVs, Myspace, or smartphones, Eyal traces disruptive links between each generation and new technological influences foreign to prior generations. “Our response is always the same: ‘We didn’t have this when we were kids, so therefore the reason you act like an imbecile must be because of this new technology.’ But, clearly there’s something else going on here.”

Instead of blaming smartphones for increasing teenage depression, Eyal wants people to look at deeper contributing issues—in particular, he points out the minimal autonomy kids are afforded. “There’ve been studies that show kids today have three times more rules than people in the army or prisoners in jail,” he says. “They are so over restricted that they’re desperate to feel their own autonomy, so they escape into these games and apps to feel the autonomy they’re missing in the real world. … And we don’t question why kids are looking for escape, right? What are the systemic reasons that are driving them to behave this way?”

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Give teenagers more agency, Eyal says, and they’ll practice self-regulation. Have adult conversations with them so they understand the science and ramifications of technology use. Help them find something healthy to practice and master.

Mae’s brother Sam told me when he got his iPhone, it felt “really good. Because, like, you just have a lot more control and things to do because you have access to the entire internet,” he says.

He’s deepened friendships with people online, and he thinks his smartphone has changed him for the better. “It’s an easy resource for learning things and for meeting people,” he says. But as for the future of teenagers with smartphones, he’s a little skeptical. Where will it go from here? “I think it’s going to be a lot different than it is today; I’m not going to say there’s going to be less talking, but some people might be more online, and more present online than in reality.”

Ellen isn’t quite sure about the future either. “There’s a lot of good, but… then there’s the being in the present. We don’t want to lose that.”

In the past year, Mae thinks some of her friends have grown more or less addicted to their smartphones, taking them out to snap and video anything and almost everything. Sometimes she wishes she could just say to them, “Maybe just live in the moment instead of having to record everything and post about it; it’s really annoying.”

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