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Smartphones, Social Media, and Adolescent Loneliness

Does the use of smartphones and social media induce loneliness?

Key points

  • Adolescents' reports of loneliness have increased worldwide.
  • That trend correlates with rising smartphone and social media use, as opposed to various economic or demographic variables.
  • Once most teens had smartphones, experts propose, a shift in social norms occurred, prioritizing online socializing at the expense of in-person.
Tomwsulcer/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Tomwsulcer/Wikimedia Commons

Over the past ten years or so (not just during the pandemic) the most striking change in daily life on college campuses is what has disappeared. For decades, college quadrangles, hallways, and classrooms in America were populated by groups of students greeting one another and talking and socializing energetically.

Now, as often as not, students walk around campus alone, and the students are mostly, if not completely, quiet in those minutes before a class begins. If my own experience as a college teacher during this period is any measure, that silence is not typically a function of earnest students reviewing their assignments. It arises, instead, from what appears to be students’ complete absorption with their cellphones. It is the new sound of silence.

“The Smartphone Trap”

Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge refer to this as “The Smartphone Trap.” They employ that disquieting metaphor because they suspect that it is just such social consequences of smartphone and social media use that has led to the well-documented and dramatic upsurge in loneliness among American adolescents since 2012, which was the first year that a majority of Americans owned a smartphone. (By 2016, more than 83 percent of American adolescents reporting using social media every day.)

To test that hypothesis Haidt, Twenge, and their colleagues examined the responses to questions about school loneliness from more than one million 15- and 16-year-olds from 37 countries in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA, administered by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, has included questions concerning school loneliness five times (in 2000, 2003, 2012, 2015, and 2018). They reasoned that if smartphones and social media play a prominent role in this outbreak of loneliness, then adolescents in these other nations should exhibit similar trends as Americans.

A Worldwide Increase of Adolescent Loneliness

Their research shows that between 2012 and 2018, school loneliness increased in 36 of the 37 countries. The sole exception was South Korea where a large majority (87 percent) owned smartphones before 2012.

More broadly, school loneliness doubled in frequency worldwide, as measured by PISA, between 2000 and 2018, with the overwhelming majority of the increase occurring since 2012. Thus, Haidt, Twenge, and their colleagues conclude that the increase in America of adolescent loneliness seems to be part of a widespread phenomenon across many other countries.

They also provided evidence that smartphone and social media use significantly correlated with these patterns, while none of a collection of other plausible variables did. They looked at unemployment, income inequality, GDP, and lower family size as possible explanatory variables, yet none were significantly related to school loneliness and unemployment was negatively correlated.

Reflecting on the South Korean exception, Haidt, Twenge, and their colleagues speculate that the impact on school loneliness may be as much a group dynamic as one about individuals’ access or use of these technologies. They propose that once smartphone (and social media) use rises to three-fourths of the adolescent population, a shift may occur in social norms. So, in such a world, even if an adolescent does not have access to these technologies or does not use them, their widespread use results in a socially exclusionary culture in which online interactions become the preferred form of social contact. They note that worldwide, this pattern seems to have a greater impact on females than males.

References

Twenge, Jean M., Haidt, Jonathan, Blake, Andrew B., McAllister, Cooper, Lemon, Hannah, and Le Roy, Astrid. (forthcoming). Worldwide increases in adolescent loneliness. Journal of Adolescence.

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