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Screens and Teens

1 August 2019

The stakes are raised when we come to older children, and especially teenagers. The issues are not just their losing sleep or getting outside enough. Teens are getting sucked into complex sets of online relationships, as social media in its many varieties overlays their real-life social circle.

What seems on the surface as a means of giving kids more friends and connections and interests is also having more insidious effects.

Is there cause for alarm?

Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? asked psychiatrist Jean Twenge recently in an essay in The Atlantic.

Most alarmingly, she claimed that smartphone use could be linked to teen suicide. One of the kids she spoke with is Athena. Athena is 13.

“Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”

Twenge’s big interest is the impact of the smartphone, and she has been focusing on what has happened since it first appeared on the scene.

“Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs, and many of the distinctive characteristics of the Millennial generation began to disappear. In all my analyses of generational data—some reaching back to the 1930s—I had never seen anything like it.”

Her claim?

“the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.”

She went on to claim a correlation between teen mobile use and anxiety, loneliness, and suicide, although she was criticised by fellow academics who said the evidence wasn’t that great and the correlation was small.

She responded that it was better to be safe than sorry.

Where does this idea come from?

Her case is that the generation born after 1995 became teens just as the smartphone arrived. In the U.S., 50 per cent+ market penetration was achieved in 2011/2012 and this coincided with a big increase in depression and anxiety amongst girls.

Between 2010 and 2015, the number of American teens showing classic symptoms of depression shot up by one-third. Teen suicide attempts jumped 23 per cent, actual suicides by 31 per cent. Twenge admits she can’t prove cause-and-effect but her keystone argument is that the correlation is significant, and because the stakes are so high it should startle us into action.

One UK expert interviewed on a BBC programme exploring Twenge’s theory, is child psychologist Laverne Antronbus. Her take is that, ‘using my head I’m quite worried, but I’m not sure I have the evidence to support the alarm. But…the alarm is real.’

She suggests the Government should take the lead in helping us develop new cultural norms to keep things under control.

The New York Times summed up what the paediatricians are saying:

“What we should be emphasising for older that parents need to make sure that they get true non-screen time built into their days. That means, in part, no screens in the bedroom, and cellphones left for the night in a different room. Families need to create a couple of hours of high-quality offline time each day.”

To discuss

Raising teenagers is no simple business. Parents know there are no simple formulae for success, though keeping communication open is a core idea. How do mobiles and other screens work in your home? How much focus do church youth efforts have on helping teens think critically and be self-aware in their social media use?


Is there a link between anxiety and phone use in teenagers? To find out the answer to that question, why not buy yourself a copy of God and My Mobile: Keeping the faith in a digital world. For a short period of time, it’s available at a discounted price of £4.99, down from its normal price of £9.99. You can get a copy from our shop.

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