So­cial me­dia: toxic for teenagers?

The Week Middle East - - News -

“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.”

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