Smartphones and Social Media: The Addiction We Ignore

Today's teens are on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades. Look around and it is crystal clear why

Photo courtesy of The Atlantic

Photo courtesy of The Atlantic

Have you ever been scrolling through your Instagram (Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat) feed while consciously aware that you want/need to stop, but the habit overpowers your desire to stop and you continue going through the motions until you get hooked on some entertaining content? I know I have. And I know it's not just me, because I see it everywhere from the bus to the bar, in everyone from the ditzy teenager to the middle-aged immigrant. 

Social media and smartphone usage is becoming a increasingly concerning phenomenon in modern society. And while there are upsides to our social media platforms, such as an instant ability to connect with others or an easy way to share content with the masses, what also develops is an increasing dependance on staying in the loop and replacing intimate connections with online interactions. The resulting addiction is taking over the lives of young people.

It sounds extreme, I know, but as Jean Twenge highlights in her article, "Have Smartphones Destroyed A Generation?" people are spending more time on their phones than ever before while going out less and are more anxious, more depressed, and more sleep deprived because of it. We are on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades. 

So, while we constantly debate over the funniest memes or who had the most fire Instagram picture, how come we never discuss the downsides to our smartphone and social media addiction? Maybe it's because we believe the good outweighs the bad. Maybe it's because we don't truly understand the severity of our addiction. Or maybe it's because, like most addicts, we don't want to admit to having a problem in the first place. 

Face-to-face interaction? No thank you.

The smartphone epidemic is evident everywhere we look, but the data suggests that things are only getting worst as we move forward as a society. According to a 2017 survey, three out of four American teens own a iPhone and they are more addicted than ever.

Every generation is different, and it is common for older folks to look down on younger generations for their different world views. But "typically, the characteristics that define a generation appear gradually, and along a continuum. Beliefs and behaviours that were already rising simply continue to do so," writes Twenge. But around 2012, which Twenge points out was the exact time the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent, there was an unprecedented shift in teen behaviours and emotional states. Many of the distinctive characteristics of the Millennial generation began to change — the biggest one being how today's teens spend their time: alone, isolated, and on their smartphones:

Consider these facts from Twenge's article:

-The number of teens who get together with their friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2015. In fact, 12th-graders in 2015 were going out less often than eighth-graders did as recently as 2009.

-Only about 56 percent of high-school seniors in 2015 went out on dates; for Boomers and Gen Xers, the number was about 85 percent.

While it might sound safe to stay home on a phone, the problem is that without face-to-face interactions kids aren't getting enough practice relating to people in real time. As Rachel Ehmke points out, "many of them will grow up to be adults who are anxious about our species’ primary means of communication—talking. And of course social negotiations only get riskier as people get older and begin navigating romantic relationships and employment."

Wait, heres one more fact:

-Since 2007, the homicide rate among teens has declined, but the suicide rate has increased. As teens have started spending less time together, they have become less likely to kill one another, and more likely to kill themselves.

Anxiety and depression? Sign me up!

Social media promises to connect us to friends, but the portrait of today's society, and especially of today's teens, is one of a lonely, dislocated, and ultimately unhappy generation.

The modern smartphone addiction requires a a certain amount of hyper-connectivity that didn't exist in past generations. Whether it's sharing what we're watching, listening to, our location, or just the fact that we're never out of reach via a text message, kids never get a break from our online relationships. 

“And that, in and of itself, can produce anxiety," according to Dr. Donna Wick. "Everyone needs a respite from the demands of intimacy and connection; time alone to regroup, replenish and just chill out. When you don’t have that, it’s easy to become emotionally depleted, fertile ground for anxiety to breed.”

Even worst, perhaps, is that while today's teens spend less time together with friends, when they do hangout they document it relentlessly on social media platforms, meaning those not invited are keenly aware of it. According to Twenge, the number of teens who feel left out and lonely spiked in 2013 and have remained high since. 

Anxiety and depression are indeed breeding as outcomes of this increased hyperactivity and loneliness, and what's causing the worst mental health crisis in decades is becoming crystal clear. 

Twenge writes:

The Monitoring the Future survey... has asked 12th-graders more than 1,000 questions every year since 1975 and queried eighth- and 10th-graders since 1991. The survey asks teens how happy they are and also how much of their leisure time they spend on various activities, including nonscreen activities such as in-person social interaction and exercise, and, in recent years, screen activities such as using social media, texting, and browsing the web. The results could not be clearer: Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy.

There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness. Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who devote less time to social media.

The more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression, too. "Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide."

For females, the rise in depressive symptoms and suicide is even more pronounced. 

"Boys’ depressive symptoms increased by 21 percent from 2012 to 2015, while girls’ increased by 50 percent... [and] three times as many 12-to-14-year-old girls killed themselves in 2015 as in 2007, compared with twice as many boys."

It's 2017, nobody sleeps anymore...

Another trend has become very clear in relation to smartphone usage: the more people use their smartphone, the less they sleep. Although this dilemma has been been around since the uprise of personal television sets, it is far more pronounced with smartphones, and today's teens are suffering.

According to sleep experts, teens should get around nine hours of sleep a night and any teen getting less than seven is significantly sleep deprived. 

"Two national surveys show that teens who spend three or more hours a day on electronic devices are 28 percent more likely to get less than seven hours of sleep than those who spend fewer than three hours, and teens who visit social-media sites every day are 19 percent more likely to be sleep deprived."

All in all: Fifty-seven percent more teens were sleep deprived in 2015 than in 1991. Not only can this sleep deprivation lead to depression, it can also lead to decreased motivation, attention spans, and memory storage. 

So... what's the solution? 

Part of the solution is recognizing that this increased dependance on smartphones and social media is not normal, and it is an addiction, and it is problematic. 

In the midst of writing this essay I came across several Instagram memes normalizing our culture's general unhappiness, such as, "2017 has been a scooter to the ankle." 

While it is easy to normalize our unhappiness, especially in the form of memes and gifs, it speaks to our paradoxical nature wherein we express unhappiness through the exact platforms that make us unhappy. So recognizing the technology and the platforms that make us unhappy is a crucial step towards solving the mental health crisis we face.

Another part of the solution is making sure that today's teens and their predecessors understand the downsides to their technological devices and social media platforms, perhaps through mandatory school curriculum. It's also important that parents and teachers set boundaries from a young age to curtail smartphone usage. Studies show that the average teen spends about two and a half hours a day on electronic devices, and significant effects on mental health and sleep time appear after two or more hours a day on those same devices. Hence, some mild boundary-setting can go a long way towards diminishing the current mental health criss and helping keep future generations from falling into harmful habits. 

Boundary-setting will prove irrelevant if today's parents, teachers, and role models don't put down their own phones and give some time to the kids to show the importance of being disconnected. After all, disconnecting is the only real way to connect. 

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