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How Smartphones Are Impacting Future Generations’ Mental Health

woman looking at phone with legs crossed

Think back to your childhood. How did you spend your free time? Did you roam the neighborhood with your friends? Did you take unsupervised trips to the mall?

Unlike the generation before them, “post-millennials” spend most of their time alone, interacting with their friends through social media platforms like Snapchat and Instagram. Members of this generation were born between 1995 and 2012 and have had access to technology and social media throughout their entire lives.

Jean M. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, has been studying generational differences for 25 years. For the most part, her research has shown predictable character trends. For example, Millennials and Baby Boomers both valued individualism and were highly independent generations. Once she began studying the post-millennial generation, however, those trends shifted. Twenge has dubbed this post-millennial generation as, “iGen.”

When the number of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50% in 2012, researchers began to notice major generational shifts taking place. The effect of having a smartphone has changed almost every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from their social interactions to their mental health.

Today’s teens are physically safer than previous generations: they’re less likely to get into a car accident or consume alcohol in an unsafe situation. Psychologically, however, members of iGen are more susceptible to a number of mental health issues.

Since 2011, the rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed. What’s the cause of this mental health crisis? The amount of time iGen spends on their smartphones.

Members of iGen are less likely to leave the house without their parents, less likely to date, and less likely to get their license. Teens don’t need to participate in these activities because they can enjoy them from the comfort of their homes on their smartphones.

Those who spend an above average amount of time engaging with screen activities are more likely to be unhappy compared to teens who spend more time engaging in non-screen activities.

“All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all non-screen activities are linked to more happiness,” according to Twenge.

For example, eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56% more likely to say they’re unhappy. iGen teens who spend even 6-9 hours a week on social media are 47% more likely to say they’re unhappy.

An even more concerning statistic is that for the first time in 24 years, the teen suicide rate is higher than the teen homicide rate. From 2012 to 2015, boys’ depressive symptoms increased by 21%, while girls’ increased by 50%. The suicide rate is still higher among boys, but sadly girls are beginning to close that gap.

What comes next is hard to predict. It’s easy enough to ask teens to put down their phones and enjoy the present moment, but getting them out of their social media habits may prove to be challenging. Hopefully, we’re able to reach a happy medium before adults are sharing emotions through emoticons rather than in person.

Learn more about the effects smartphones have had on iGen from the Atlantic here.

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