The phone isn’t your teenager’s problem
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.