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Reality Check: Before Smartphones Ruined Teenagers, It Was Video Games! And TV! And Elvis!

August 6, 2017

Talking Points

Reality Check: Before Smartphones Ruined Teenagers, it Was Video Games! And TV! And Elvis!

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Smartphones may be behind “skyrocketing” rates of teen depression and suicide, psychologist Jean M. Twenge argues in a terrifying new Atlantic essay (“Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?,” adapted from her forthcoming book, iGen).

Phones have “changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives,” she says; the effects are intensely isolating and juvenilizing, leading not just to more time at home alone using devices and obsessively curating online profiles but also to less dating, sex, driving, socializing, and generally just doing things. Teens who spend more time than average on screens are more likely to feel lonely, get less sleep, and feel unhappy, Twenge writes. Kids who spend more time on “nonscreen activities” are more likely to be happy. (The average is high: for eighth-graders, 10 hours weekly on social media.)

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

This may be true. It conforms to the cognoscenti’s idea of teen culture. But that should also be an alarm. The piece is compelling and the book may make a real contribution, but a problem with magazine sociology is it tends to be monocausal when there are many causes — and in a way that confirms the prejudices of subscribers.

Some points in the article, for instance, aren’t necessarily a phenomenon of smartphone use at all.

Cyberbullying: Only part of the picture

Twenge says depression and suicide among girls (who are most affected by virtual socialization) “could also be rooted in the fact that they’re more likely to experience cyberbullying.”

It won’t do to downplay here, but it’s not clear what data Twenge is using. Cyberbullying is difficult to quantify but, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, does appear to be rising, especially among girls — most frequently in the form of unwanted texting; depending on who’s counting, between 7 percent and 16 percent of students say they are cyberbullied (those figures are probably low due to under-reporting).

But cyberbullying shouldn’t be considered in isolation; those who reported being cyberbullied tend to be bullied at school as well. Even with the rise of cyberculture, young people still go to school, and far more of them reporting being bullied in person than online. Bullying, the traditional kind, has trended downward for several years.

Sexual activity: Actually declining for decades

Twenge suggests a decline in teen sexual activity — with an accompanying drop in teen pregnancy — stems from smartphone culture. However, the Centers for Disease Control reported that the percentage of ninth- through 12th-graders who said they’d had sex declined steadily from 54.1 percent in 1991 to 47.8 percent in 2007, the year the first iPhone was released.

Marriage: iGen just following Gen X and Boomers’ lead

Today’s teens delay once-typical behaviors like drinking and dating and being unsupervised — they remain children longer and are becoming adults later. Twenge notes that their Gen X parents also delayed adulthood: They “married and started careers later than their Boomer predecessors had.”

This passing reference is notable because it suggests the adulthood-delaying iGen, as Twenge calls the generation born between 1995 and 2013, fend off institutions like marriage because smartphones have slowed their maturity.

In fact, Americans have been waiting increasingly longer to get married for half a century, a fact attributable in large part to changing attitudes about women working as women joined the labor force. More recently, for many reasons, marriage as an institution has lost some of its former cultural force.

A 1981 New York Times Magazine article, similar to many others at the time, singled out the cause for a downturn in the life of children:

With the diminishing influence of parents in children’s lives, a new and powerful family member stepped in to take their place: the television set. In frequently unsupervised homes, children today fill in their free hours watching television. Occasionally they watch programs designed especially for them, but far more often they tune into soap operas treating of rape and abortion, documentaries revealing misery, suffering and death, news programs sensationalizing turmoil and crime and comedies mocking and trivializing men and women much like their parents. Not only do these subjects make children more cynical and sophisticated, but the very act of watching for so many hours prevents them from engaging in those imaginative play activities that once formed the essence of childhood.

This isn’t necessarily wrong, as far as it goes. Nor were the warnings around the start of the century about video games. (“The disturbing material in Grand Theft Auto and other games like it is stealing the innocence of our children,” Senator Hillary Clinton said in 2005.)

But every age has a big bang theory, including one that says the teenage universe was produced by electronic communications and is mostly unconnected to what came before it or by other influences. That isn’t the entire truth, even if true enough. The fact that kids are driving less but still getting taken to the mall suggests they have outside help.

Teens as they ever were
When I told my early-teenage child, who was using her phone, that I read an article showing kids who use their phone a lot are depressed, she responded loudly, “Well, lah-dee-dah.” The sarcasm was, as they say, dripping, but also inherited from kids going back to the dinosaurs.