Screens make teens lonely

Do screens make teens lonely? A recent article by Noah Smith got me thinking about the impact of so much screen time on our kids.

In “Honestly, it’s probably the phones”, Smith argues that the smartphone is the most plausible explanation for teenage unhappiness.

Doesn’t having access to all of their friends and acquaintances at all times via a device in their pockets mean that kids are less isolated than before?

Well, no. As the natural experiment of the pandemic demonstrated, physical interaction is important. Text is a highly attenuated medium — it’s slow and cumbersome, and an ocean of nuance and tone and emotion is lost. Even video chat is a highly incomplete substitute for physical interaction. A phone doesn’t allow you to experience the nearby physical presence of another living, breathing body — something that we spent untold eons evolving to be accustomed to. And of course that’s even before mentioning activities like sex that are far better when physical contact is involved.

He goes on to say that there is nothing about smartphone ownership that forces users to stop getting together in person. But, he provides several reasons why smartphones reduce the incentives:

  • Distraction — “the rise of smartphones was also the rise of “phubbing”, i.e. when people go on their phones instead of paying attention to the people around them”
  • Behavioral ease — “when your phone is right there in your pocket, it’s easier to just text a friend instead of going and hanging out”
  • Network effect – “If 20% of people would rather be on their phones, that reduces everyone else’s options for in-person hangouts by 20%.”

Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University wrote an article in 2019, “Teens have less face time with their friends – and are lonelier than ever”.

“It turns out that today’s teens are socializing with friends in fundamentally different ways – and also happen to be the loneliest generation on record.”

Source: Jean Twenge

Written before the impact of the pandemic, Professor Twenge observed, “Today’s 10th-graders go to about 17 fewer parties a year than 10th-graders in the 1980s did. Overall, 12th-graders now spend an hour less on in-person social interaction on an average day than their Gen X predecessors did.”

The study found that as the decline in “face-to-face time” accelerated after 2010, feelings of loneliness among teens increased dramatically. At the same time, research has found that teens who spend more time on social media also spend more time with friends in person. That should lead us to wonder why in-person social interactions have been going down, while social media use has increased.

The social teens are still more likely to meet up in person, and they’re also more active on their accounts. However, the total number of in-person hangs for everyone in the group drops as social media replaces some face-to-face time.

So the decline in face-to-face interaction among teens isn’t just an individual issue; it’s a generational one. Even teens who eschew social media are affected: Who will hang out with them when most of their peers are alone in their bedrooms scrolling through Instagram?

This study was published in March of 2019, a year before the world transitioned to a period of virtual social interaction.

In the face of a possibility that smartphones are behind the rise in teen unhappiness, Noah Smith suggests that our best move may be to simply wait for society to adapt to the changes effected by social media.

Perhaps that is the most pragmatic approach. Collectively, we aren’t going to put the smartphone genie back in the bottle.

Still, these articles should serve as important warning flags for parents, teachers and all those concerned about the mental well-being of a generation raised on always-on connected devices.

Some have argued that teens are simply choosing to communicate with their friends in a different way, so the shift toward electronic communication isn’t concerning.

That argument assumes that electronic communication is just as good for assuaging loneliness and depression as face-to-face interaction. It seems clear that this isn’t the case. There’s something about being around another person – about touch, about eye contact, about laughter – that can’t be replaced by digital communication.

The result is a generation of teens who are lonelier than ever before.

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