With teen mental health deteriorating over five years, there’s a likely culprit

pimchawee

Around 2012, something started going wrong in the lives of teens.

In just the five years between 2010 and 2015, the number of U.S. teens who felt useless and joyless – classic symptoms of depression – surged 33 percent in large national surveys. Teen suicide attempts increased 23 percent. Even more troubling, the number of 13- to 18-year-olds who committed suicide jumped 31 percent.

In a new paper published in Clinical Psychological Science, my colleagues and I found that the increases in depression, suicide attempts and suicide appeared among teens from every background – more privileged and less privileged, across all races and ethnicities and in every region of the country. All told, our analysis found that the generation of teens I call “iGen” – those born after 1995 – is much more likely to experience mental health issues than their millennial predecessors.

What happened so that so many more teens, in such a short period of time, would feel depressed, attempt suicide and commit suicide? After scouring several large surveys of teens for clues, I found that all of the possibilities traced back to a major change in teens’ lives: the sudden ascendance of the smartphone.

All signs point to the screen

Because the years between 2010 to 2015 were a period of steady economic growth and falling unemployment, it’s unlikely that economic malaise was a factor. Income inequality was (and still is) an issue, but it didn’t suddenly appear in the early 2010s: This gap between the rich and poor had been widening for decades. We found that the time teens spent on homework barely budged between 2010 and 2015, effectively ruling out academic pressure as a cause.

However, according to the Pew Research Center, smartphone ownership crossed the 50 percent threshold in late 2012 – right when teen depression and suicide began to increase. By 2015, 73 percent of teens had access to a smartphone.

Not only did smartphone use and depression increase in tandem, but time spent online was linked to mental health issues across two different data sets. We found that teens who spent five or more hours a day online were 71 percent more likely than those who spent less than an hour a day to have at least one suicide risk factor (depression, thinking about suicide, making a suicide plan or attempting suicide). Overall, suicide risk factors rose significantly after two or more hours a day of time online.

Of course, it’s possible that instead of time online causing depression, depression causes more time online. But three other studies show that is unlikely (at least, when viewed through social media use).

Two followed people over time, with both studies finding that spending more time on social media led to unhappiness, while unhappiness did not lead to more social media use. A third randomly assigned participants to give up Facebook for a week versus continuing their usual use. Those who avoided Facebook reported feeling less depressed at the end of the week.

The argument that depression might cause people to spend more time online doesn’t also explain why depression increased so suddenly after 2012. Under that scenario, more teens became depressed for an unknown reason and then started buying smartphones, which doesn’t seem too logical.

What’s lost when we’re plugged in

Even if online time doesn’t directly harm mental health, it could still adversely affect it in indirect ways, especially if time online crowds out time for other activities.

For example, while conducting research for my book on iGen, I found that teens now spend much less time interacting with their friends in person. Interacting with people face to face is one of the deepest wellsprings of human happiness; without it, our moods start to suffer and depression often follows. Feeling socially isolated is also one of the major risk factors for suicide. We found that teens who spent more time than average online and less time than average with friends in person were the most likely to be depressed. Since 2012, that’s what has occurred en masse: Teens have spent less time on activities known to benefit mental health (in-person social interaction) and more time on activities that may harm it (time online).

Teens are also sleeping less, and teens who spend more time on their phones are more likely to not be getting enough sleep. Not sleeping enough is a major risk factor for depression, so if smartphones are causing less sleep, that alone could explain why depression and suicide increased so suddenly.

Depression and suicide have many causes: Genetic predisposition, family environments, bullying and trauma can all play a role. Some teens would experience mental health problems no matter what era they lived in.

But some vulnerable teens who would otherwise not have had mental health issues may have slipped into depression due to too much screen time, not enough face-to-face social interaction, inadequate sleep or a combination of all three.

It might be argued that it’s too soon to recommend less screen time, given that the research isn’t completely definitive. However, the downside to limiting screen time – say, to two hours a day or less – is minimal. In contrast, the downside to doing nothing – given the possible consequences of depression and suicide – seems, to me, quite high.

It’s not too early to think about limiting screen time; let’s hope it’s not too late.

Screen-addicted teens are unhappy A new study finds that more screen time is coincides with less happiness in youths

Science Daily

Date: January 22, 2018

Source: San Diego State University

Summary: Researchers found that teens who spent a lot of time in front of screen devices — playing computer games, using more social media, texting and video chatting — were less happy than those who invested time in non-screen activities like sports, reading newspapers and magazines, and face-to-face social interaction. The happiest teens used digital media for less than an hour per day. But after a daily hour of screen time, unhappiness rises steadily along with increasing screen time.

Happiness is not a warm phone, according to a new study exploring the link between adolescent life satisfaction and screen time. Teens whose eyes are habitually glued to their smartphones are markedly unhappier, said study lead author and San Diego State University and professor of psychology Jean M. Twenge.

To investigate this link, Twenge, along with colleagues Gabrielle Martin at SDSU and W. Keith Campbell at the University of Georgia, crunched data from the Monitoring the Future (MtF) longitudinal study, a nationally representative survey of more than a million U.S. 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-graders. The survey asked students questions about how often they spent time on their phones, tablets and computers, as well as questions about their in-the-flesh social interactions and their overall happiness.

On average, they found that teens who spent more time in front of screen devices — playing computer games, using social media, texting and video chatting — were less happy than those who invested more time in non-screen activities like sports, reading newspapers and magazines, and face-to-face social interaction.

Twenge believes this screen time is driving unhappiness rather than the other way around.

“Although this study can’t show causation, several other studies have shown that more social media use leads to unhappiness, but unhappiness does not lead to more social media use,” said Twenge, author of “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — And Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.”

Total screen abstinence doesn’t lead to happiness either, Twenge found. The happiest teens used digital media a little less than an hour per day. But after a daily hour of screen time, unhappiness rises steadily along with increasing screen time, the researchers report today in the journal Emotion.

“The key to digital media use and happiness is limited use,” Twenge said. “Aim to spend no more than two hours a day on digital media, and try to increase the amount of time you spend seeing friends face-to-face and exercising — two activities reliably linked to greater happiness.”

Looking at historical trends from the same age groups since the 1990s, the researchers found that the proliferation of screen devices over time coincided with a general drop-off in reported happiness in U.S. teens. Specifically, young people’s life satisfaction, self-esteem and happiness plummeted after 2012. That’s the year that the percentage of Americans who owned a smartphone rose above 50 percent, Twenge noted.

“By far the largest change in teens’ lives between 2012 and 2016 was the increase in the amount of time they spent on digital media, and the subsequent decline in in-person social activities and sleep,” she said. “The advent of the smartphone is the most plausible explanation for the sudden decrease in teens’ psychological well-being.”

Story Source:

Materials provided by San Diego State UniversityNote: Content may be edited for style and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Jean M. Twenge, Gabrielle N. Martin, W. Keith Campbell. Decreases in Psychological Well-Being Among American Adolescents After 2012 and Links to Screen Time During the Rise of Smartphone Technology.Emotion, 2018; DOI: 10.1037/emo0000403

iPhones and Children Are a Toxic Pair, Say Two Big Apple Investors

The Wall Street Journal

Two activist shareholders want Apple to develop tools and research effects on young people of smartphone overuse and addiction

Teens took a group selfie with a smartphone in New York’s Times Square on Dec. 1.
Teens took a group selfie with a smartphone in New York’s Times Square on Dec. 1. PHOTO: DREW ANGERER/GETTY IMAGES

The iPhone has made Apple Inc. AAPL 1.03% and Wall Street hundreds of billions of dollars. Now some big shareholders are asking at what cost, in an unusual campaign to make the company more socially responsible.

A leading activist investor and a pension fund are saying the smartphone maker needs to respond to what some see as a growing public-health crisis of youth phone addiction.

Jana Partners LLC and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, or Calstrs, which control about $2 billion of Apple shares, sent a letter to Apple on Saturday urging it to develop new software tools that would help parents control and limit phone use more easily and to study the impact of overuse on mental health.

The Apple push is a preamble to a new several-billion-dollar fund Jana is seeking to raise this year to target companies it believes can be better corporate citizens. It is the first instance of a big Wall Street activist seeking to profit from the kind of social-responsibility campaign typically associated with a small fringe of investors.

Adding splash, rock star Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler, will be on an advisory board along with Sister Patricia A. Daly, a nun who successfully fought Exxon Mobil Corp. over environmental disclosures, and Robert Eccles, an expert on sustainable investing.

The Apple campaign would be unusual for an activist like Jana, which normally urges companies to make financial changes. But the investors believe that Apple’s highflying stock could be hurt in coming decades if it faces a backlash and that proactive moves could generate goodwill and keep consumers loyal to Apple brands.

“Apple can play a defining role in signaling to the industry that paying special attention to the health and development of the next generation is both good business and the right thing to do,” the shareholders wrote in the letter, a copy of which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. “There is a developing consensus around the world including Silicon Valley that the potential long-term consequences of new technologies need to be factored in at the outset, and no company can outsource that responsibility.”

Obsessive teenage smartphone usage has sparked a debate among academics, parents and even the people who helped create the iPhone.

Two teenage boys use smartphones in Vail, Colo., in June 2017.
Two teenage boys use smartphones in Vail, Colo., in June 2017. PHOTO: ROBERT ALEXANDER/GETTY IMAGES

Some have raised concerns about increased rates in teen depression and suicide and worry that phones are replacing old-fashioned human interaction. It is part of a broader re-evaluation of the effects on society of technology companies such as Google and Amazon.com Inc.and social-media companies like Facebook Inc. and Snap chat owner Snap Inc., which are facing questions about their reach into everyday life.

Apple hasn’t offered any public guidance to parents on how to manage children’s smartphone use or taken a position on at what age they should begin using iPhones.

Apple and its rivals point to features that give parents some measure of control. Apple, for instance, gives parents the ability to choose which apps, content and services their children can access.

The basic idea behind socially responsible investing is that good corporate citizenship can also be good business. Big investors and banks, including TPG, UBS Group AG and Goldman Sachs Group Inc.are making bets on socially responsible companies, boosting what they see as good actors and avoiding bad ones.

How the iPhone Was Born: Inside Stories of Missteps and Triumphs
On the iPhone’s 10th birthday, former Apple executives Scott Forstall, Tony Fadell and Greg Christie recount the arduous process of turning Steve Jobs’s vision into one of the best-selling products ever made. (Originally published June 25, 2017)

Big-name activists increasingly view bad environmental, social or governance policies as red flags. Jana plans to go further, putting its typical tools to work to drive change that may not immediately pay off.

Apple is an ambitious first target: The combined Jana-Calstrs stake is relatively small given Apple’s nearly $900 billion market value. Still, in recent years Apple has twice faced activists demanding it pare its cash holdings, and both times the company ceded some ground.

 

Chief Executive Tim Cook has led Apple’s efforts to be a more socially responsible company, for instance on environmental and immigration issues, and said in an interview with the New York Times last year that Apple has a “moral responsibility” to help the U.S. economy.

Apple has shown willingness to use software to address potentially negative consequences of phone usage. Amid rising concerns about distracted driving, the company last year updated its software with a “do not disturb while driving” feature, which enables the iPhone to detect when someone is behind the wheel and automatically silence notifications.

The iPhone is the backbone of a business that generated $48.35 billion in profit in fiscal 2017. It helped turn Apple into the world’s largest publicly listed company by market value, and anticipation of strong sales of its latest model, the iPhone X, helped its stock rise 50% in the past year. Apple phones made up 43% of U.S. smartphones in use in 2016, according to comScore , and an estimated 86 million Americans over age 13 own an iPhone.

Jana and Calstrs are working with Jean M. Twenge of San Diego State University, who chronicled the problem of what she has dubbed the “iGen” in a book that was previewed in a widely discussed article in the Atlantic magazine last fall, and with Michael Rich of Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, known as “the mediatrician” for his work on the impact of media on children.

The investors believe both the content and the amount of time spent on phones need to be tailored to youths, and they are raising concern about the public-health effects of failing to act. They point to research from Ms. Twenge and others about a “growing body of evidence” of “unintentional negative side effects,” including studies showing concerns from teachers. That is one reason Calstrs was eager to support the campaign, according to the letter.

The group wants Apple to help find solutions to questions like what is optimal usage and to be at the forefront of the industry’s response—before regulators or consumers potentially force it to act.

The investors say Apple should make it easier and more intuitive for parents to set up usage limits, which could head off any future moves to proscribe smartphones.

The question is “How can we apply the same kind of public-health science to this that we do to, say, nutrition?” Dr. Rich said in an interview. “We aren’t going to tell you never go to Mickey D’s, but we are going to tell you what a Big Mac will do and what broccoli will do.”

(We’d like to hear from you: Is smartphone addiction among young people a public-health concern? Should companies like Apple be held responsible for tackling the issue? Email us at socialmedia@wsj.com with your comments.)

Write to David Benoit at david.benoit@wsj.com