Social media: toxic for teenagers?
“Put down the phone, turn off the laptop, and do something – anything – that does not involve a screen.” That, said the psychologist Jean Twenge in The Atlantic, is my plea to today’s teenagers, who are “on the brink” of a major mental health crisis. For the past 25 years, I have been studying behavioural changes across generations of Americans. The data stretches back to the 1930s, taking in huge upheavals such as the War and the sexual revolution. But I have “never seen anything like” the seismic changes caused by modern technology. Children born between 1995 and 2012 – I call them iGen – have grown up with a smartphone in their hands, and it has “changed every aspect” of their lives. They do much less face-to-face socialising than their predecessors: the number of teenagers who see their friends frequently has dropped by more than 40% since 2000. In 2015, only 56% of 17-year-olds went on a date, down from 85% for Generation Xers. Modern teenagers are slower to learn to drive, or earn money, and spend more time in the parental home. Instead of having fun and becoming independent, they are “on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed”. I’m not so sure, said David Aaronovitch in The Times. Every generation worries that new inventions will destroy the next generation. Once it was novels, crosswords and newfangled modes of transport. (“Excessive use of bicycle fatal,” warned The New York Times in 1887.) This anxiety tells us more about the failings of the old – our fear, nostalgia and difficulty adapting to change – than about the lives of the young. If anything, we should encourage our children to spend more time online, said Robert Hannigan – the former director of GCHQ – in The Daily Telegraph. “This country is desperately short of engineers and computer scientists.” We need our children to develop the “cyber skills” to compete in the digital economy. Besides, for this generation, “life online and ‘real’ life are not separate”. Snapchat and Instagram “can be as sociable as mooching around the streets with a group of friends”. On the contrary, said Allison Pearson in The Daily Telegraph: there is now clear evidence that social media provides none of the benefits of real human contact, and has serious consequences for mental health. Studies in the US show that teens who spend three hours a day online are 35% more likely to have a risk factor for suicide. The suicide rate among girls aged 12 to 14 – some of the heaviest users of social media – has tripled in a decade. “If that isn’t enough to make you sneak into their rooms and confiscate the phone, I don’t know what is.”