The phone isn’t your teenager’s prob­lem

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY TRACY DEN­NIS-TIWARY New York Times

Ap­ple has in­tro­duced new soft­ware de­signed to help users re­strict the time they spend on their phones – just change your set­tings and your fa­vorite app will lock you out af­ter a cer­tain num­ber of hours. It’s been es­pe­cially wel­comed by par­ents who fret about the habits of their “screenagers” – young peo­ple who seem per­ma­nently at­tached to their mo­bile de­vices.

Even Sil­i­con Val­ley in­sid­ers de­manded that Ap­ple make its de­vices “less ad­dic­tive.” Some re­searchers have gone so far as to de­clare that smart­phones have psy­cho­log­i­cally de­stroyed a gen­er­a­tion of mil­len­ni­als and are fu­el­ing the epi­demic of teenage anx­i­ety and sui­cide in the United States.

One study notes a spike in anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion among teenagers in 2011 – around the time of broad smart­phone adop­tion.

But I’ve come to be­lieve that con­ven­tional wis­dom about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween trou­bled kids and their fa­vorite tech­nol­ogy is wrong.

Al­though some re­search does show that ex­ces­sive and com­pul­sive smart­phone use is cor­re­lated with anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion, there is a lack of di­rect ev­i­dence that de­vices ac­tu­ally cause men­tal health prob­lems.

In other words, there sim­ply does not yet ex­ist a prospec­tive lon­gi­tu­di­nal study show­ing that, all things be­ing equal, teenagers who use smart­phones more of­ten or in cer­tain ways are more likely than their fel­lows to sub­se­quently de­velop men­tal ill­ness.

Large stud­ies that fail to fol­low in­di­vid­u­als over time can re­veal only cor­re­la­tion, not cause. Luck­ily, some re­cently be­gun stud­ies will be poised to weigh in on cau­sa­tion – but we’ll have to wait years for the re­sults.

In the mean­time, we can’t just blame the ma­chines. This is es­pe­cially im­por­tant be­cause if smart­phones aren’t a di­rect cause of teenagers’ men­tal health strug­gles, their use might in­stead be a cru­cial way in which these strug­gles are ex­pressed. This calls for a dif­fer­ent set of solutions.

Teenagers are strug­gling with anx­i­ety more than any other prob­lem, and per­haps more than ever be­fore. There’s a good chance that it is anx­i­ety that is driv­ing teenagers (and the rest of us) to es­cape into screens as a way to flee fears.

Across most types of anx­i­ety runs a com­mon thread – dif­fi­culty cop­ing with feel­ings of un­cer­tainty: some­thing to­day’s teenagers have more than their fair share of.

They have un­cer­tain eco­nomic lives: Un­like pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions, they can an­tic­i­pate a worse eco­nomic fu­ture than their par­ents.

They’ve also grown up with un­cer­tain truths and un­re­li­able sources of news and facts, yet they can­not eas­ily es­cape the dig­i­tal ecosys­tem that’s to blame.

Fi­nally, teenagers have un­cer­tain in­de­pen­dence, many hav­ing been raised un­der the whirring of he­li­copter par­ents, over­in­volved and try­ing to fix ev­ery prob­lem for their chil­dren. This suf­fo­cates in­de­pen­dence at a time when teenagers should be ex­plor­ing au­ton­omy, lim­its the de­vel­op­ment of self-re­liance and grit and may even di­rectly pro­duce anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion.

When we’re anx­ious, we grav­i­tate to­ward ex­pe­ri­ences that dull the present anx­ious mo­ment. En­ter mo­bile de­vices, the per­fect es­cape into a twodi­men­sional half-life, one that teenagers can make sense of.

Yes, we should de­vote re­sources to mak­ing smart­phones less ad­dic­tive, but we should de­vote even more re­sources to ad­dress­ing the pub­lic health cri­sis of anx­i­ety that is caus­ing teenagers so much suf­fer­ing and driv­ing them to seek re­lief in the ul­ti­mate es­cape ma­chines.


Smart­phones are a cop­ing mech­a­nism for teens, and tak­ing them away won’t solve their prob­lems.

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