Are Smartphones Destroying a Generation?

Commentary by Susan Brinkmann, OCDS

A prominent researcher who has been studying generational differences for decades says that the introduction of the smartphone into the lives of America’s teens is producing a generation of seriously unhappy people.

Writing for The Atlantic, Dr. Jean M. Twenge of the University of San Diego is the author of the new bestseller, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for the Adulthood – and What That Means for the Rest of Us.

As the title so aptly describes, the impact of the advent of the smartphone into the lives of the average teen is only now beginning to be understood. Although adults once worried about the deleterious effects of “screen time,” researchers like Twenge are discovering that the impact of these phones goes way beyond the usual concerns about attention span.

“The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone,” Twenge writes.

She began noticing unusually abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states in 2012.

What was it about 2012 that caused such dramatic shifts in behavior? It was the exact moment when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent. And a 2017 survey of 5,000 teens found that three out of four now owned an iPhone.

“The biggest difference between the Millennials and their predecessors was in how they viewed the world; teens today differ from the Millennials not just in their views but in how they spend their time. The experiences they have every day are radically different from those of the generation that came of age just a few years before them,” she writes.

“The more I pored over yearly surveys of teen attitudes and behaviors, and the more I talked with young people . . . the clearer it became that theirs is a generation shaped by the smartphone and by the concomitant rise of social media. I call them iGen.”

These youth were born between 1995 and 2012 and are growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet, she notes. While Millennials grew up with the web as well, it wasn’t ever-present in their lives and in their hand at all times of the day and night the way it is today with cellphones.

This new development had a seismic effect on the lives of teens – and not all of it is bad.

“More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party, today’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been,” Twenge notes. “They’re markedly less likely to get into a car accident and, having less of a taste for alcohol than their predecessors, are less susceptible to drinking’s attendant ills.”

On the other hand, she found that 12th graders were going out less often in 2015 than eight-graders did as recently as 2009. This is because today’s teens don’t have to leave the house to “hang out” with their friends anymore. Now they can sit in their rooms on the smartphones and Snapchat, text and Instagram all day long. Their social life is now lived on their phone. The number of teens who get together with their friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40 percent between 2010 and 2015.

They’re also not dating as much. Even though this means less sexual activity, which is a good thing, only about 56 percent of high-school seniors went out on dates in 2015; for Boomers and Generation X, that number was more like 85 percent.

They’re also less likely to be in a hurry to get a driver’s license or a job.

As a result of this isolation, they’re becoming seriously unhappy people.

“Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones,” Twenge writes.


Teens who visit social-networking sites every day but see their friends in person less frequently are the most likely to agree with the statements “A lot of times I feel lonely,” “I often feel left out of things,” and “I often wish I had more good friends,” Twenge found.

Teens’ feelings of loneliness spiked in 2013 and have remained high since.

“There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness,” Twenge found.

This trend has been especially steep among girls. Forty-eight percent more girls said they often felt left out in 2015 than in 2010, compared with 27 percent more boys, she reports.

“Girls use social media more often, giving them additional opportunities to feel excluded and lonely when they see their friends or classmates getting together without them. Social media levy a psychic tax on the teen doing the posting as well, as she anxiously awaits the affirmation of comments and likes.”

What’s the solution? “If you were going to give advice for a happy adolescence based on this survey, it would be straightforward: Put down the phone, turn off the laptop, and do something—anything—that does not involve a screen.”

Parents can encourage their teens to get involved in after-school activities such as sports and clubs.

Our Young Women of Grace program is being used in many parishes across the country as an after-school club for girls ages 13+ which involves learning about their dignity as daughters of God and the gift of their feminine genius. But it also gives them the gift of social interaction.

In the group that I facilitated during the 2015-2016 school year, we met every other Friday from 4:30 to 6:30 and had pizza, games, crafts and, most importantly, hours-long gab sessions where the girls could vent about the unique pressures in their lives. Sometimes they spoke about the effects of hostility in school from teachers and students about their faith. At other meetings it was about the pressure to look “perfectly put together” all the time. They discussed cultural trends that were impacting them most, such as the push for unisex bathrooms and locker rooms and the prevalence of sexting and drugs in school. The two hours they met for Young Women of Grace every other Friday quickly became a “safe space” where they could share common concerns and offer support and prayer for one another. Even after the course ended, the girls have remained friends.

As Twenge remarks, restricting technology may be an unrealistic demand to impose on a generation of kids so accustomed to being wired at all times, but there are things we can do to help our teens find a better way of life than one that depends on a cell phone connection.

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