The Sunday Magazine

What are smartphones doing to young people?

Three-quarters of North American teenagers either own or have access to a smartphone. Too much screen-time has been linked to sleep disruption, loneliness, anxiety, depression and even an increased risk of suicide.
One addiction expert in the U.K. likened giving a child a smartphone to 'giving them a gram of cocaine.' (CBC)

Originally published on November 17, 2017.

The average age at which kids in the U.S. become smartphone owners is 10 years old. 

​In 2015, the Pew Research Center found that 75 per cent of American teenagers either owned or had access to a smartphone. 

​Something that didn't even exist 11 years ago is now so essential to life in the modern world that few people — including kids — can imagine life without them.

But what has this technology done to young people's cranial hardware?

Tech addiction 

One addiction expert in the U.K. likened giving a child a smartphone to "giving them a gram of cocaine." 

Jean Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University. (Sandy Huffaker/The New York Times)
Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, told The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright that teens are more vulnerable than adults to tech addiction. 

Twenge is the author of more than 130 scientific publications and six books. Her latest book is called iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.

"Teens are not as far along in their brain development in terms of self-control," she says. "It is a developmental stage when they're just so concerned with fitting in and social status and popularity, so the phone becomes even more attractive under those circumstances."

Clive Thompson, Canadian technology journalist. (Catalina Kulczar)
For Clive Thompson, the concern is less about the change in technology and more about the corporations that control our communication tools. 

Thompson is a widely-read Canadian technology journalist who writes for The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post and Wired. He's the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds For The Better

"We, historically, are unsettled by communications tools — things that change the way we relate to each other tend to unsettle us and that goes back to the telephone and the telegraph. So you always have to be careful that we olds are not being worried that kids are not growing up the way we grew up," Thompson told Enright.

"That said, we have turned young people loose into this world where very big corporations — you know, Facebook and Twitter — are committed by marketplace dictates to [try] to suck their users in and get them to stare at it as much as possible. That's their mission."

Smartphone use linked to depression, loneliness in youths

Twenge agrees with recent research linking smartphone use among young people to sleep disruption, loneliness, anxiety, depression and even increased risk of suicide. 

Jean Twenge's latest book gives a first look at today’s members of iGen — children, teens, and young adults born in the mid-1990s and later. (Simon & Schuster)
She says communicating online has been no substitute for face-to-face interaction with friends.

"Social media companies advertise themselves as a way for us to connect with each other. But when you look at the data, that doesn't really hold up," Twenge says. 

In Smarter Than You Think, Clive Thompson argues that every technological innovation has provoked the very same anxieties that plague us today — but, as in the past, we'll learn to use the new and retain what’s good of the old. (Penguin Books)
"Right about at the time that smartphones became popular, when they gained market saturation, which was in 2012, that's exactly when loneliness among teens started to spike [with] symptoms of depression, suicide-related outcomes.

"Happiness started to go down, life satisfaction started to go down, right at the time when they started spending more time on their phones and less time with their friends in person — that's when mental health just fell off a cliff," she adds. 

Twenge attributes much of these mental health effects to the amount of time teens spend on their screens. 

"That crowds out time for things that are better for mental health, like spending time with your friends in person," she says. "The percentage of teens who don't sleep enough also started to spike right around 2012, and not sleeping enough is a major risk factor for mood disorders."

​No education on responsible use

Thompson believes many of these problems also arise from a lack of education on how to use these communication tools responsibly. 

"One of the things that I think is a problem with modern technology," he says, "is that kids get turned loose on this stuff without any instruction on how to behave or how to comport themselves and how to critically assess what these tools are doing."

Studies looking at Googling habits, he adds, have shown that "[kids] just go with the top result whether or not it's right," because "no educator has had the curriculum to say this is how to disambiguate the good from the bad."

Thomson says the same phenomenon can be seen with social media use. 

"We should have something almost like a civics [course] on how to use these spaces responsibly."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview. 


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