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We Need to Talk About Kids and Smartphones

We Need to Talk About Kids and Smartphones
From TIME - October 10, 2017

Nina Langton had no right to be depressed. At least, thats how she saw it.

She had a great group of friends, lived in a prosperous neighborhood, and was close with her parents. Like most 16-year-olds at her Connecticut high school, Nina spent much of her free time on her smartphone. But unlike many of her classmates, she was never "targeted" on social mediaher word for the bullying and criticism that took place daily on sites like Snapchat. Part of what made my depression so difficult was that I didnt understand why I was feeling so sad, she says.

Later, after her attempted suicide and during her stay at a rehabilitation facility, Nina and her therapist identified body image insecurity as the foundation of her woe. I was spending a lot of time stalking models on Instagram, and I worried a lot about how I looked, says Nina, who is now 17. Shed stay up late in her bedroom, looking at social media on her phone, and poor sleepcoupled with an eating disordergradually snowballed until suicide felt like her only option. I didnt totally want to be gone, she says. I just wanted help and didnt know how else to get it.

Ninas mom, Christine Langton, has a degree in public health and works at a childrens hospital. Despite her professional background, she says she was completely caught off guard by her daughters suicide attempt. Nina was funny, athletic, smart, personable . . . depression was just not on my radar, she says.

In hindsight, Langton says she wishes she had done more to moderate her daughters smartphone use. It didnt occur to me not to let her have the phone in her room at night, she says. I just wasnt thinking about the impact of the phone on her self-esteem or self-image until after everything happened.

It seems like every generation of parents has a collective freak-out when it comes to kids and new technologies; television and video games each inspired widespread hand-wringing among grown-ups. But the inescapability of todays mobile devicescoupled with the personal allure of social mediaseems to separate smartphones from older screen-based media. Parents, teens and researchers agree smartphones are having a profound impact on the way adolescents today communicate with one another and spend their free time. And while some experts say its too soon to ring alarm bells about smartphones, others argue we understand enough about young peoples emotional and developmental vulnerabilities to recommend restricting kids escalating phone habit.

The latest statistics on teen mental health underscore the urgency of this debate.

Between 2010 and 2016, the number of adolescents who experienced at least one major depressive episode leapt by 60%, according to a nationwide survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The 2016 survey of 17,000 kids found that about 13% of them had a major depressive episode, compared to 8% of the kids surveyed in 2010. Suicide deaths among people age 10 to 19 have also risen sharply, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Young women are suffering most; a CDC report released earlier this year showed suicide among teen girls has reached 40-year highs. All this followed a period during the late-1990s and early 2000s when rates of adolescent depression and suicide mostly held steady or declined.

These increases are hugepossibly unprecedented, says Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of iGen, which examines how todays super-connected teens may be less happy and less prepared for adulthood than past generations. In a peer-reviewed study that will appear later this year in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, Twenge shows that, after 2010, teens who spent more time on new media were more likely to report mental health issues than those who spent time on non-screen activities.

Using data collected between 2010 and 2015 from more than 500,000 adolescents nationwide, Twenge's study found kids who spent three hours or more a day on smartphones or other electronic devices were 34% more likely to suffer at least one suicide-related outcomeincluding feeling hopeless or seriously considering suicidethan kids who used devices two hours a day or less. Among kids who used electronic devices five or more hours a day, 48% had at least one suicide-related outcome.

Twenge also found that kids who used social media daily were 13% more likely to report high levels of depressive symptoms than those who used social less frequently. Overall, kids in the study who spent low amounts of time engaged in in-person social interaction, but high amounts of time on social media, were the most likely to be depressed.

Twenge is quick to acknowledge that her research does not prove a cause-and-effect relationship exists between smartphones and depression. Its possible that depressed kids are just more likely to spend time on their devices, she says. But that doesnt answer the question of what caused this sudden upswing in teen depression and suicide.

Some experts have pointed to the aftermath of the Great Recession, or rising student workloads, as possible non-device explanations for young peoples recent struggles. But when you look at the economic or homework data, it doesnt line up with the rise in teen suicide or depression, Twenge says. Youth smartphone ownership does. Im open to exploring other factors, but I think the more we learn about kids and smartphones, the more were going to see that limiting their exposure is a good idea.

Others agree its time to approach adolescent device use with greater caution. What this generation is going through right now with technology is a giant experiment, and we dont know whats going to happen, says Frances Jensen, chair of neurology at the University of Pennsylvanias Perelman School of Medicine. While the science on kids and technology is incomplete, Jensen says what we already know about the minds of tweens and teens suggests giving a young person all-the-time access to an Internet-connected device may be playing with fire.

The teenage brain

To understand how device use may be affecting a young persons mental health, its important to recognize the complex changes occurring in an adolescents still-developing brain.

For one thing, that brain is incredibly plastic and able to adaptthat is, physically changein response to novel activities or environmental cues, says UPenns Jensen, who is the author of The Teenage Brain.

Some research has already linked media multitaskingtexting, using social media and rapidly switching among smartphone-based appswith lower gray-matter volume in the brains anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a region involved in emotion processing and decision making. More research has associated lower ACC volumes with depression and addiction disorders.

We know for a fact teens have very underdeveloped impulse control and empathy and judgment compared to adults, Jensen says. This may lead them to disturbing online content or encountersstuff a more mature mind would know to avoid. Teens also have a hyperactive risk-reward system that allows them to learnbut also to become addictedmuch more quickly than grown-ups, she says. Research has linked social media and other phone-based activities with an uptick in feel-good neurochemicals like dopamine, which could drive compulsive device use and promote feelings of distraction, fatigue, or irritability when kids are separated from their phones.

Even if smartphones arent the root cause of a teens anxiety or other issues, Jensen adds, they may turn out to be an accelerantthe gasoline that turns a flicker of adolescent angst into a blaze.

Another area of the brainthe prefrontal cortexis critical for focus and interpreting human emotion, and doesnt fully develop until a persons mid-20s, says Paul Atchley, a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas. During our teenage years, its important to train that prefrontal cortex not to be easily distracted, he says. What were seeing in our work is that young people are constantly distracted, and also less sensitive to the emotions of others.

While the research on smartphones is preliminary, Atchley says he believes studies will eventually show a clearer connection between the negative trends in teen mental health and rising smartphone use. But some scientists contend there isnt enough cause-and-effect evidence to condemn smartphones.

I see the rise in depression, especially among girls, and I understand why people are making these connections with new technologies, says Candice Odgers, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University who has published research on teens and tech. But so far, we have very little data to suggest mobile technologies are causing anxiety or social impairments. She points to evidence that some young people, particularly marginalized groups like LGBT youth, can derive benefits from online communication through supportive exchanges with friends and family.

Odgers adds that jumping to conclusions and vilifying smartphones may lead us away from factors that may turn out to be more significanta worry raised by other experts. This is such a serious and polarizing issue that I think we need to set aside our assumptions until we have stronger data, she says. At the same time, she doesnt condone unrestricted smartphone access at any age. Im certainly not advocating giving an 8-year-old a smartphone, she says. But if you ask me what age is appropriate, or how much use is safe, I dont think the existing evidence provides those answers.

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