White Coat, Black Art·white coat black art

The link between your kid's smartphone and anxiety

Jean Twenge, psychologist and author of iGen explains why today's teenagers, those born after 1995 are reporting high levels of anxiety - far more than previous generations.
Jean Twenge - psychologist and author of iGen (The New York Times)

Constantly waiting for a 'like' on Instagram and replacing face-to-face friendships with Facebook chats is taking a toll on today's teens, says author and psychologist Jean Twenge.

In her new book, iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood  she boils down data surveys of multiple generations going back to the 1930s. which show that anxiety, "once a disease of middle age," has been rising among young people for several decades. 

But it was a trend that Twenge saw in the last few years that revealed something alarming, she tells Dr. Brian Goldman, host of White Coat, Black Art. 

"Across the board, over and over there was this pattern, that around 2011-2012, anxiety, depressive symptoms, clinical depression and suicide rates all started to go up across many different surveys ... It's big and it's sudden and it's just such an unusual combination." says Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University. 

The suicide rate in older teens aged 15-19 has increased by 50 per cent.

The suicide rate for younger teens aged 12-14 has doubled, and among girls it has tripled.

In her book,Twenge set out to find out what was behind the spike. 

She ruled out the recession, since the economy had improved. 

But what she couldn't ignore was that during the time that young people were reporting a decline in their mental health, they were becoming increasingly attached to their smartphones. 

"From 2011 to 2016 teens started spending much more time on social media and much less time with their friends face-to-face. Decades of research shows that being with other people face-to-face is good for mental health.

While that trend doesn't prove that social media or smartphones cause anxiety, she says  it "points in that direction." 

On average, kids use their smartphone seven to eight hours a day. That heavy use means they are sleeping less, says Twenge and that's a risk factor for developing anxiety. It also means that they are having less in real life social interaction. 

Sometimes the more connected kids are online, the more isolated they feel in real life, leading to elevated levels of psychological distress.

Social media is also increasing stress. Teens anxiously await replies to text messages and get anxious when they don't come. She says teen girls she interviewed also talked about the stress of waiting for "likes" on Instagram.

"There is a lot of pressure around physical appearance and popularity," Twenge says. 

Now popularity is quantified: "Here's my number of followers, here's how many likes I got on that post."- Author and psychologist Jean Twenge on why kids have anxiety related to social media.

Girls seem to be impacted more negatively than boys because boys typically spend more time online playing games. 

Twenge suggests that parents hold off getting heir kids smartphones until they are in their early teens.

Then the big challenge: Minimising the time they spend on the devices to two hours or less.

 While it might be difficult to enforce, she suggests parents can set an example by putting away their own smartphones. 


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