Taking Away the Phones Won’t Solve Our Teenagers’ Problems

Featured in
The New York Times
Published on
July 14, 2018

Apple has introduced new software designed to help users restrict the time they spend on their phones — just change your settings and your favorite app will lock you out after a certain number of hours. It’s been especially welcomed by parents who fret about the habits of their “screenagers” — young people who seem permanently attached to their mobile devices.

Even Silicon Valley insiders demanded that Apple make its devices “less addictive.” Some researchers have gone so far as to declare that smartphones have psychologically destroyed a generation of millennials and are fueling the epidemic of teenage anxiety and suicide in the United States. One study notes a spike in anxiety and depression among teenagers in 2011 — around the time of broad smartphone adoption.

But I’ve come to believe that conventional wisdom about the relationship between troubled kids and their favorite technology is wrong.

Although some research does show that excessive and compulsive smartphone use is correlated with anxiety and depression, there is a lack of direct evidence that devices actually cause mental health problems.

In other words, there simply does not yet exist a prospective longitudinal study showing that, all things being equal, teenagers who use smartphones more often or in certain ways are more likely than their fellows to subsequently develop mental illness.

Large studies that fail to follow individuals over time can reveal only correlation, not cause. Luckily, some recently begun studies will be poised to weigh in on causation — but we’ll have to wait years for the results.

In the meantime, we can’t just blame the machines. This is especially important because if smartphones aren’t a direct cause of teenagers’ mental health struggles, their use might instead be a crucial way in which these struggles are expressed. This calls for a different set of solutions.

Teenagers are struggling with anxiety more than any other problem, and perhaps more than ever before. There’s a good chance that it is anxiety that is driving teenagers (and the rest of us) to escape into screens as a way to flee fears. Across most types of anxiety runs a common thread — difficulty coping with feelings of uncertainty: something today’s teenagers have more than their fair share of.

They have uncertain economic lives: Unlike previous generations, they can anticipate a worse economic future than their parents.

They’ve also grown up with uncertain truths and unreliable sources of news and facts, yet they cannot easily escape the digital ecosystem that’s to blame.

Finally, teenagers have uncertain independence, many having been raised under the whirring of helicopter parents, overinvolved and trying to fix every problem for their children. This suffocates independence at a time when teenagers should be exploring autonomy, limits the development of self-reliance and grit and may even directly produce anxiety and depression.

When we’re anxious, we gravitate toward experiences that dull the present anxious moment. Enter mobile devices, the perfect escape into a two-dimensional half-life, one that teenagers can make sense of.

We already know that teenagers go online to avoid feelings of stress, depression and anxiety, and we also know this strategy has more negative emotional consequences than positive ones. With their slot-machine logic and addictive properties, smartphones keep us coming back for more: for distraction, a message from a friend, news, a funny cat meme.

Digital technology is designed to grab our attention, so it exhausts us, distracts us and detracts from our ability to nurture fulfilling relationships. With that in mind, teenagers should reduce their reliance on smartphones, and we must heed the call to make smartphones and social media less addictive while figuring out how they affect us and our children.

At the same time, if smartphone addiction is a reflection of adolescent anxiety, cutting screen time may not solve the broader problems that drive teenagers to their screens. Just blaming the machines is a cop-out, a way to avoid the much more difficult task of improving young people’s lives so they won’t need to escape.

Yes, we should devote resources to making smartphones less addictive, but we should devote even more resources to addressing the public health crisis of anxiety that is causing teenagers so much suffering and driving them to seek relief in the ultimate escape machines.

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