A generation of young adults are running through the minefield of adolescence, for the first time in history, totally immersed in the age of the smartphone.
Love it or loathe it, smartphone technology is taking over our daily existence but, while we might all be up to date on our apps, we’re not necessarily happier.
In fact, in the last five years, teen mental health in America has deteriorated drastically and renowned psychologist Dr Jean Twenge has told UNILAD she thinks she knows why.
A new study has uncovered the smartphone’s catastrophic effects on iGen; the children, teens, and young adults born in the mid-1990s and later, who are being made lonely and anxious by the devices in their pockets.
In the five years between 2010 and 2015, the number of American teens who felt useless and joyless – classic symptoms of depression – surged 33 per cent in large national surveys.
Teen suicide attempts increased 23 per cent.
Even more troubling, the number of 13-to-18-year-olds who committed suicide jumped 31 per cent and analysis has found the epidemic of poor mental health is more prevalent in young adults than their millennial predecessors.
Dr Twenge, author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy places the blame, at least in part, on young adults’ dependence on their smartphones.
Worryingly, she says, the problem is universal. Suicidal feelings among young adults occur regardless of socio-economic or cultural factors, but the increase was particularly ‘driven by females’.
After all, in 2015, 75 per cent of teens had access to a smartphone.
Dr Twenge told UNILAD about the correlation:
Several longitudinal and experimental studies show screen time leads to unhappiness rather than unhappiness leading to screen time.
Dr Twenge and her team published their analysis, titled Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time, in the journal, Clinical Psychological Science.
They found teens who spent five or more hours a day online were 71 per cent more likely than those who spent less than an hour a day to suffer suicide risk.
Overall, suicide risk factors – including depression and suicidal thoughts as well as planning to take their own life – rose significantly after two or more hours a day of time online.
Giving scientific credence to The Conversation, Dr Twenge writes:
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.
Depression and suicide have many causes, Dr Twenge explained, including genetic predisposition, family environments, bullying and trauma, just like Ryan’s case.
It’s also right to note ‘some teens would experience mental health problems no matter what era they lived in’, with or without smartphones and the trappings of modernity.
Yet, Dr Twenge adds, ‘some vulnerable teens who would otherwise not have had mental health issues may have slipped into depression due to too much screen time’, a lack of face-to-face social interaction, or inadequate sleep.
It’s not just pervasive in America.
On a typical weekday, an average person in Britain spends six hours looking at a screen – whether a smartphone, tablet, computer or television – most of us are glued and subsequently living our waking day in the digital world rather than the real world.
According to Dr Twenge and her team, there’s a ‘clear pattern linking screen activities with higher levels of depressive symptoms’ and suicide. Yet we’re all apparently addicted.
So, what does the expert advise to combat these affects? Dr Twenge told UNILAD:
The research suggests limiting digital media use to two hours a day or less is best for mental health and happiness.
It’s especially important to make sure smartphone time doesn’t interfere with sleep.
Charge your phone overnight outside of the bedroom and put the phone away for half an hour or ideally an hour before bedtime to ensure more restful sleep. Lack of sleep is a major risk factor for depression.
Some social media platforms, such as Instagram, have tried to combat the negative effects with new interfaces and measures to promote good mental health and offer support to users who seem to need it.
Other young people argue they find solace in online social media forums, particularly in interest-based communities, but the world wide web is an undeniably double-edged sword.
Sometimes it seems for every support group there are twenty trolls willing to bully and berate among the ranks of keyboard warriors.
While limiting screen time won’t stop bullying – or the constant pressure to look, act or be a certain way – it would surely encourage young people to value their real time experiences more than their life online.
As Dr Twenge puts it, society must understand and adapt for this army of young people, ‘because where iGen goes, so goes our nation – and the world.’
Both the problem and the solution is quite literally in the palm of our hands.
If you’ve been affected by any of these issues, and want to speak to someone in confidence, please don’t suffer alone. Call Samaritans for free on their anonymous 24-hour phone line on 116 123
If you have a story you want to share, send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
A former emo kid who talks too much about 8Chan meme culture, the Kardashian Klan, and how her smartphone is probably killing her. Francesca is a Cardiff University Journalism Masters grad who has done words for BBC, ELLE, The Debrief, DAZED, an art magazine you’ve never heard of and a feminist zine which never went to print.