How Smartphones are Changing Teens - The Screen Smart Podcast

How Smartphones are Changing Teens

We are in the midst of a fairly radical cultural change, and we may all be too distracted to realize it. The changes are most readily being experienced by teenagers:

The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.

Jen Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University who has spent years studying generational trends. Her recent article in The Atlantic, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation,” is noteworthy and should be read by every parent.

The article is worth your time. Here’s one of the main takeaways:

“But 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.”

How Smartphones are Changing Teens - The Screen Smart Podcast

That’s right. To hear teens talk, you’d think a smartphone was a key to happiness, a major life necessity. But the research increasingly points in the opposite direction.

Twenge reports on the “Monitoring the Future” survey, a large national survey of teens sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The annual survey asks high school students about how they spend their time, and obviously in recent years they have added on-screen activities like social media to the usual list of off-screen activities. The survey also asks questions about how generally happy teens are.

The results, reportedly, are crystal clear: “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.”

Are Smartphones Changing Our Teens? - The Screen Smart PodcastThere are other changes that data seems to correlate to the emergence of the smartphone. Teens date less, get driver’s licenses later, sleep less, and spend more time alone. They’re also far more likely to be depressed and consider suicide than teens of previous generations.

The article raises a number of questions for thoughtful parents:

  • Is it realistic to not give your teen a smartphone?
  • If not, how do you prevent overuse and addiction?
  • What kind of limits are appropriate for smartphone or app usage?
  • How can parents regulate their kids’ cell phone usage?
  • How can parents navigate social media with their teens?

We don’t have perfect answers to these questions. In fact, the answers, approaches, and suggestions will probably differ from family to family and kid to kid.

But one of the primary goals of Screen Smart is to explore these kinds of questions together. Because, as this Atlantic article makes clear, the hands-off approach of doing nothing is almost certainly harming our kids and their long-term outcomes. So let’s dig in, explore, and do the hard work together.