Teens & Smart Phones: A Risky Mental Health Mixture

Teens & Smart Phones: A Risky Mental Health Mixture

By Helen Kay, Principal, Academy of Notre Dame Upper School 
Having worked with adolescents and teens for more than thirty years, it has become alarmingly obvious that a change is happening in the students we care about so much.  About five or six years ago educators and school counselors noticed a concerning rise in student anxiety levels and depression.  Educational magazines and teacher chat rooms are now asking, “What is causing this change in our students?”  

A Good Read for Parents of Teens

So it was with interest that I recently listened to an interview with Jean M. Twenge, PhD, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, and ultimately read her book, iGen, Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy-and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.  The book’s introduction describes this generation of students: “They were born after 1995. They grew up with cell phones, had an Instagram account before they started high school, and do not remember a time before the Internet.  They are different from any generation that came before them.  They are one in four Americans.  They are iGen. And they have arrived.” Twenge stresses that, “Some of the generational changes are positive, some are negative, and many are both.” Many people believe that students are more stressed from academic pressure, more homework, and extracurricular activities.  Except surveys show that they are not spending more time on these activities than in the past. The differences from these studies are too small to account for the changes in students. 

The Impact of Smart Phones

While there are many topics in this book, one of Dr. Twenge’s main points is the impact of the introduction of iPhones in 2007 used by two out of three U.S. teens.  As adults who didn’t enter the “Age of the Internet” until later in life, we recognize the power and positive aspects of social media and instant communication. A glance around our own homes and at the outside world quickly establishes that these addictive devices have become a drain of our time.  However, the iGeners have no comparison to make.  This is their world. Access to social media via smart phones can make teens feel both connected and isolated at the same time. “Many students sleep with their phones, check social media and watch videos right before bed, and reach for their phones as soon as they wake up in the morning.” As noted in the book’s data, “IGen seniors spend an average of 6 hours a day on their phones. Eighth graders were not far behind spending 5 hours a day on media.  This includes texting, the Internet (streaming media, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube) electronic gaming, and video chatting. They check their phones an average of 80 times a day.” 

Social Media vs. Social Skills 

One of the biggest changes with the Internet is the ever changing social media sites.  Our young adults, who are developing their sense of identity and place in the world, now have public and private identities.  Their public identities are put on their phones and sent out into the larger world. These posts are almost always a positive photo or experience which they use to cultivate the image that they want to portray to others.  Teens seem to need instant approval of their posts in the form of a “like” from their followers. A post that doesn’t garner enough “likes” makes them feel bad about themselves. Likewise, as they see other posts, they feel left out or that other people’s lives are more interesting than their world. 

All this online activity can make a significant impact to students at the tender ages of 11 to 18.  A vignette from a student tells the story. Arriving at the beach with friends, the girls searched 20 minutes for the perfect spot for a photo, spent time taking the photos, then 20 minutes choosing the right filter and sent it out.  They did not get as many likes as they wanted so started over again.  Then they went home because the weather was terrible and they were really cold. However, their public image showed girls having a great time at the beach and those viewing it had missed out! It is important to remember the amount of times students are looking at this information, the amount of time spent on these sites, and the addicting effect it has. It is not positive!

Time on your smart phone also cuts down on time spent interacting face-to-face. Teenagers today spend more time at home than other generations. Is this bad?  No, except that they are spending their time at home on their phones.  Surveys show that, “teens who spend more time with onscreen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time with nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy.  There is not a single exception: all screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.” The same is true for feeling lonely especially among younger teens who also experience more cyberbullying.  Added to this lack of face-to face interaction is a concern for the loss of the social skills needed for adulthood.  The ability to read social cues, to look people in the eyes, shake hands, make emotional connections are so important. Preliminary evidence suggests that teens who make emotional connections feel better about themselves. Like everything else in life, they need practice in developing social skills, and these skills come when electronics are put down.

At the Academy

What are parents and educators to do?  It is not an easy road to navigate.  Reading books like Dr. Twenge’s can help by starting an important conversation.  Whether one agrees with these professional findings or not, it does give us pause and reflection.  Here at the Academy of Notre Dame we work to develop social skills and an important part of that development is not allowing the use of cell phones during school time.  Even at lunch, students are expected to be involved with their peers through club activities or lunchroom conversations.  It is wonderful to go to classrooms and the lunchrooms and hear the buzz of voices and bursts of laughter as our students interact.  It is so much better than seeing everyone sitting side-by-side and looking at their phones!