Smartphones, depression, our teenagers, and ourselves

I think most of us have gone through the experience, in one way or another. I need only give one example for you to know what I am talking about. You are at home Sunday night after church. You have invited friends and family to come over for a time of fellowship. Everyone has gathered themselves into the living-room, and there are two or three different conversations taking place. But as you pause from your own conversation to look at how things are going elsewhere in the room, this is what you see: one, two, three people (or more), simply sitting there staring at their smartphones. They are checking their Facebook page, or reading their email, or carrying on a conversation with someone via text-messaging or Snapchat. And the thought crosses your mind: “Can’t these people just socialize with each other and stay off their phones for a few hours?”

This does not happen only on Sunday nights, does it? It happens during the weekdays at the supper table. It happens in the car. It happens in the gymnasium. It is a common phenomenon. I confess that I have been guilty of this kind of behavior myself. And it is very common among the younger generation. Not only are many people slaves to their smartphones; their slavery is preventing them from socializing with people in face-to-face conversation.

A question that comes up in my mind is this: “Can this really be healthy for people? God has made us social beings. And just at those times when we have the opportunities to be social, we give it up for the sake of staying connected to the Internet. Can this really be healthy?” In an article for The Atlantic, Jean M. Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, asks this very question with respect to our teenagers. Although I do not think that what she has to say is surprising, I do think it is good for us to hear.

In the article entitled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” Twenge makes the argument that our teenagers are on the brink of a mental-health crisis, and smartphones have something to do with it:

The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health…. 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 [those born between 1995 and 2012—EJG] as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones…. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.1

What’s the connection between smartphones and teen depression and anxiety? Twenge mentions a few connections. The first connection is the way that smartphones can hinder face-to-face socializing with others:

The number of teens who get together with their friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2015; the decline has been especially steep recently. It’s not only a matter of fewer kids partying; fewer kids are spending time simply hanging out…. The roller rink, the basketball court, the town pool… they’ve all been replaced by virtual spaces accessed through apps and the web.

You might expect that teens spend so much time in these new spaces because it makes them happy, but most data suggest that it does not. The Monitoring the Future survey, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and designed to be nationally representative, has asked 12th graders more than 1,000 questions every year since 1975 and queried eighth- and 10th-graders since 1991. The survey asks teens how happy they are and also how much of their leisure time they spend on various activities, including non-screen activities such as in-person social interaction and exercise, and, in recent years, screen activities such as using social media, texting, and browsing the web. The results could not be clearer: Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on non-screen activities are more likely to be happy.

There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all non-screen activities are linked to more happiness….

If you were going to give advice for a happy adolescence based on this survey, it would be straightforward: Put down the phone, turn off the laptop, and do something—anything—that does not involve a screen. Of course, these analyses don’t unequivocally prove that screen time causes unhappiness; it’s possible that unhappy teens spend more time online. But recent research suggests that screen time, in particular social media use, does indeed cause unhappiness….

Social-networking sites like Facebook promise to connect us to friends. But the portrait of iGen teens emerging from the data is one of a lonely, dislocated generation. Teens who visit social-networking sites every day but see their friends in person less frequently are the most likely to agree with the statements “A lot of times I feel lonely,” “I often feel left out of things,” and “I often wish I had more good friends.” Teens’ feelings of loneliness spiked in 2013 and have remained high since.2

What is another connection between smartphones and teen anxiety and depression? Twenge goes on to say the following:

For all their power to link kids day and night, social media also exacerbate the age-old teen concern about feeling left out. Today’s teens may go to fewer parties and spend less time together in person, but when they do congregate, they document their hangouts relentlessly— on Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook. Those not invited to come along are keenly aware of it. Accordingly, the number of teens who feel left out has reached all-time highs across all age groups. Like the increase in loneliness, the upswing in feeling left out has been swift and significant.

This trend has been especially steep among girls. Forty-eight percent more girls said they often felt left out in 2015 than in 2010, compared with 27 percent more boys. Girls use social media more often, giving them additional opportunities to feel excluded and lonely when they see their friends or classmates getting together without them….

Girls have also borne the brunt of the rise in depressive symptoms among today’s teens. Boys’ depressive symptoms increased by 21 percent from 2012 to 2015, while girls’ increased by 50 percent—more than twice as much. The rise in suicide, too, is more pronounced among girls.3

Is there another connection between smartphones and teen anxiety and depression? Twenge mentions one more thing:

Curious, I asked my undergraduate students at San Diego State University what they do with their phone while they sleep. Their answers were a profile in obsession. Nearly all slept with their phone, putting it under their pillow, on the mattress, or at the very least within arm’s reach of the bed. They checked social media right before they went to sleep, and reached for their phone as soon as they woke up in the morning (they had to—all of them used it as their alarm clock). Their phone was the last thing they saw before they went to sleep and the first thing they saw when they woke up. If they woke in the middle of the night, they often ended up looking at their phone….

It may be a comfort, but the smartphone is cutting into teens’ sleep: Many now sleep less than seven hours most nights. Sleep experts say that teens should get about nine hours of sleep a night; a teen who is getting less than seven hours a night is significantly sleep deprived. Fifty-seven percent more teens were sleep deprived in 2015 than in 1991. In just the four years from 2012 to 2015, 22 percent more teens failed to get seven hours of sleep. The increase is suspiciously timed, once again starting around when most teens got a smartphone….

Sleep deprivation is linked to myriad issues, including compromised thinking and reasoning, susceptibility to illness, weight gain, and high blood pressure. It also affects mood: People who don’t sleep enough are prone to depression and anxiety.4

I do not think any of this is shocking. But it does serve as a healthy reminder. Furthermore, none of this even begins to touch upon the sexual filth that can be accessed through our smartphones, which is also certainly plaguing many teenagers (and adults). There’s certainly more than one reason to withhold smartphones from our teenagers, or strictly monitor their use.

What are the rules you have set up in your household concerning technology? What conversations have you had with your teenager about the use of Snapchat, or Facebook, or smartphones generally? Are you aware of what your children are doing on their phones? Are you aware of the example you are giving them through your own use of your smartphone? And when it comes to Sunday night fellowship, or family time around the Christmas holidays, what are you going to do when you see your loved ones disconnecting themselves from family and friends simply in order to be on their smartphones?

Technology can be both a help and a hindrance. How are you allowing it to function in your home?

1 Jean M. Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?,” The Atlantic, September 2017 Issue,, accessed October 21, 2017.

2 Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”

3 Twenge.

4 Twenge.