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No, Smartphones are Not Destroying a Generation

The kids are going to be all right.

A recent article by psychologist Jean Twenge in the Atlantic warns that "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" and that "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."

The article has been scattered prolifically all over my Twitter and Facebook feed, with parents crowing, "I knew it!" and popular newsmedia wringing their hands.

Adobe Images
Source: Adobe Images

The problem with both the article and the resulting attention is three-fold:

1. The data the author chooses to present are cherry-picked, by which I mean she reviews only those studies that support her idea and ignores studies that suggest that screen use is not associated with outcomes like depression and loneliness or that suggest that active social media use is actually associated with positive outcomes like resilience.

2. The studies she reviews are all correlational, meaning that the researchers merely observed associations between certain variables, such as smartphone use and depression. These studies leave open the possibilities that such associations are due to smartphones causing depression, depression symptoms causing greater use of smartphones, or a third variable, such as number extracurricular activities, causing both to rise and fall together.

To actually know whether smartphone use causes depression, we'd have to assign large groups of adolescents perfectly matched on all number of variables to a long period where one group uses smartphones extensively and the other does not, and then watch to see whether depression levels rise more in one group versus the other. But even then we'd have to be careful to have the non-smartphone users have something else to do with their time that was carefully matched to smartphone use on time and engagement and social connectedness.

Twenge is careful to note at several points this weakness of the research, explicitly calling out the correlational nature of the data. However, at other times, she mentions things like, "Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent."

3. The studies she reviews largely ignore social contexts and how people differ, instead reporting only average effects and correlations. Emerging evidence indicates that like every other question psychologists can think to ask about human behavior, screen use and its association with psychological well-being varies based on a multitude of contextual and personal variables, such as how you use media, when you use it, and what else is going on in your life.

For instance, this article by Andrew K. Przybylski and Netta Weinstein uses a careful design that takes into account these sorts of factors and concludes that "moderate use of digital technology is not intrinsically harmful and may be advantageous in a connected world."

Source: xkcd

Nowhere does Twenge's bias seem more obvious to me than in research that she reviews but then casts aside as seemingly irrelevant to her thesis — namely, the vast counter-evidence to the "destroyed generation" thesis contained in her headline. In the introduction to the piece, she notes that this generation has sharply lower rates of alcohol use, teen pregnancies, unprotected sex, smoking, and car accidents than previous generations. This is what a destroyed generation looks like?

Moreover, there is good reason to think that smartphones and social media may have positive effects as well as negative effects. Routinely feeling connected to your social peers could be beneficial. Clive Thompson has written an entire book reviewing the evidence that technology may be amplifying our intelligence, our productivity, and our "ambient awareness" of each other's worlds. Kristelle Lavallee, Content Strategist at the Center on Media and Child Health out of Boston Children's Hospital, told me in an interview about many of the beneficial effects of social media on adolescent development. For instance, teens can find other teens interested in the same social movements, connect with teens across the globe on interests like music and fashion, and feel embedded in a social network filled with meaning.

Twitter (Public)
Source: Twitter (Public)

Yes, we should practice (and preach to our children) moderation in all things, our digital lives included. Yes, we should conduct careful research studies into the effects of screentime on developing minds, and we should be open to what those data say. Yes, we should be concerned about adolescent depression and investigate its causes. Yes, we should put down our phones once in a while and take a walk in the damn woods.

But my suspicion is that the kids are gonna be ok.

For a more elaborate response, check out my guest post at Inside Higher Ed: The Confounding Relationship Between Smart Phones and Mental Health or my Medium post Tech is Like Sex: Abstinence Isn’t the Answer.

More from Sarah Rose Cavanagh Ph.D.
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