2004 by Tomasz Sienicki
Source: 2004 by Tomasz Sienicki

According to researcher and popular author, Dr. Jean Twenge, the answer is, “Yes!” She relates a conversation with a 13-year-old girl who tells her, “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”

And, thus, there have been “abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states” during the past 5 years. Today’s teens differ from previous generations, including the Millennials, fundamentally in how they spend their time—“exactly the moment when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent.”

She calls these youth, born between 1995 and 2012, iGen—a generation “growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet.”

The result, she asserts, is that a range of behaviors formerly common among adolescents, such as exploring interpersonal sex and finding real life romance are delayed because iGeners are on their phones rather than hooking up and falling in love with a person they’ve met face-to-face. “Childhood now stretches well into high school.” I’m not so sure she believes this is a good or bad thing, to delay adolescence. Perhaps it is a mixed blessing.

Dr. Twenge reaches her conclusions based on various data that have been collected during the past several years and comparing that information with previous research. Here are several of her points.

Less Sex

The average iGen teen has sex for the first time the spring of junior year of high school, a year later than the average GenXer. The positive spin on this decrease is that the birth rate among teenagers is decreasing rather rapidly, down two-thirds since its 1991 peak.

Less Romance

Parallel with the decline in sexual activity is the decline in dating: “Only about 56 percent of high-school seniors in 2015 went out on dates; for Boomers and Gen Xers, the number was about 85 percent.”

More Bullying

One consequence of being on smartphones on a continuous, perpetual basis is cyberbullying. And, because “boys tend to bully one another physically, while girls are more likely to do so by undermining a victim’s social status or relationships,” teenage girls have an enhanced social media platform “on which to carry out the style of aggression they favor, ostracizing and excluding other girls around the clock.”

More Depressive Symptoms and Suicide

Although both girls and boys have experienced recent upsurges in depressive symptoms, the girl increase of 50% in the last 3 years is twice what it is for boys. In addition, “The rise in suicide, too, is more pronounced among girls. Although the rate increased for both sexes, three times as many 12-to-14-year-old girls killed themselves in 2015 as in 2007, compared with twice as many boys.” She links these data in part to smartphone cyberbullying.

Reflections

Many others, such as Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a Clark University professor of psychology; Dr. Oren Amitay, a Toronto-based psychologist; and Sarah Rose Cavanagh, Ph.D. psychologist at Assumption College and Psychology Today blogger have raised questions regarding her methodology (representative samples, questionable questionnaires, cherry-picking results, etc.).

My concern, however, is slightly different: Dr. Twenge’s cause-and-effect interpretations. She draws the line very clearly from smartphones to less sex and romance and lower mental health: Smartphones have “led to many ripple effects for their wellbeing, their social interactions and the way they think about the world” and research demonstrates that “the arrow goes from social media to lower wellbeing and not the other way around.” These statements are made despite her caution, “Of course, these analyses don’t unequivocally prove that screen time causes unhappiness; it’s possible that unhappy teens spend more time online.” Yet, the implication is clear to Dr. Twenge—she believes smartphones prevent sex and romance among today’s iGeners.

It’s the classic third variable problem: overlooking the impact of unknown variables that are related to two other variables that might better explain cause-effect relationships. Thus, it might not be having a smartphone that delays having sex and romance but having “helicopter” parents that buy the smartphone.

Like helicopters, these parents hover overhead, overseeing their child's life (Wikipedia). They buy their child a smartphone to better track their child, to enhance homework and success, to find better friends, to conform with other parents, and, perhaps, to prevent going out of the home to have sex and romance.

What are your thoughts? Are smartphones responsible? Helicopter parents? Other critical third variables? What might they be?

References

Twenge, J. M. (2017, September). Have smartphones destroyed a generation? The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the...a.../534198/

Quenqua, D. (2013, August 5, 2013). Seeing narcissists everywhere. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/06/science/seeing-narcissists-everywhere.html?pagewanted=all

Cavanagh, S. R. (August 6, 2017). No, smartphones are not destroying a generation https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/once-more-feeling/201708/no-smartphones-are-not-destroying-generation

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