Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The Generational Effect of Smartphone Use

Jean M. Twenge, in a very popular article for the Atlantic:

The advent of the smartphone and its cousin the tablet was followed quickly by hand-wringing about the deleterious effects of “screen time.” But the impact of these devices has not been fully appreciated, and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans. 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.

To those of us who fondly recall a more analog adolescence, this may seem foreign and troubling. The aim of generational study, however, is not to succumb to nostalgia for the way things used to be; it’s to understand how they are now. Some generational changes are positive, some are negative, and many are both. More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party, today’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been. They’re markedly less likely to get into a car accident and, having less of a taste for alcohol than their predecessors, are less susceptible to drinking’s attendant ills.

Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen [Twenge’s name for those born between 1995 and 2012] as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.

With a premise that smartphones might be “destroying a generation”, it’s no wonder that this article was so widely-shared and linked-to. Only one problem: it isn’t accurate.

Sarah Rose Cavanagh, in Psychology Today:

Nowhere is Twenge’s bias more obvious to me than in some research that she actually does review 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?

It’s easy, I think, to make the argument that Twenge made, if only because it’s something many of us feel. But there simply isn’t the evidence to show that smartphone use is clearly and directly tied to concerning psychological conditions.