Imagine the best memories of your youth. Now imagine all of them replaced by a screen. Unless we can outsmart phones, this will be reality for a generation.
It seems like millennials are always texting, swiping, browsing, Snapchatting, Instagramming, or wasting time in some other way on a device, and dinosaurs like me have been quick to complain about it. But it turns out millennials, most of whom remember cassette tapes and graduated high school with flip phones, were old enough to ride the technological wave of the 2010s without getting sucked under.
Writing at The Atlantic, Jean Twenge points out that there’s another, younger generation that got pummeled by the smartphone revolution.
Those born after 1995, typically called “generation Z,” were just entering their teen years when Steve Jobs introduced the world to the iPhone. Appropriately, Twenge dubs these young people, “iGen.”
Unlike millennials, these kids cannot remember a time before the Internet. Like laboratory mice, they’ve been the unwitting subjects of a historic experiment. What effect has this had on them?
Twenge paints a bleak picture, and it goes far deeper than the typical concerns about diminished attention spans. Smartphones and other devices have shaped these teens’ worlds, from their social lives to their mental health.
Teen suicide has skyrocketed since 2011. One survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that teens who spent ten hours or more a week on social media were 56 percent more likely to experience symptoms of depression. According to two national surveys, those glued to screens at least three hours a day were 28 percent more likely to suffer sleep deprivation.
It doesn’t end there. The younger generation is spending less time outside than any other crop of kids—ever. Twelfth-graders in 2015 spent fewer hours out of the house than eighth-graders did in 2009! They don’t get their driver’s licenses as early as their parents did, they’re more than twenty percent less likely to have jobs, and they aren’t even interested in spending time with friends, at least not in person. The number of teens who regularly get together socially has dropped by an astonishing forty percent since 2000.
Where are they spending all their time? Well, mostly at home, in their rooms, staring at screens. One teenager described the crater she’d left on her bed from spending all summer Snapchatting. Another admitted, “I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
“iGen,” Twenge concludes, “[is] on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades.” And overuse of technology and social media is the most obvious culprit.
Well, here’s the good news, and I know you’re ready for it: Research indicates that much of this is reversible. Kids and teens who spend an above average amount of time with friends in person are 20 percent less likely to say they’re unhappy. Fewer hours spent staring at a screen correlates with better sleep. And as blogger, Andrew Sullivan, put it recently, cutting back on online time just makes you feel human again.
“If you were going to give advice for a happy adolescence …” writes Twenge, “it would be straightforward: Put down the phone, turn off the laptop, and do something—anything—that does not involve a screen.”
Restricting your kids’ smartphone use may not sound like the best way to stay on their good side. And if they’re older, you’ll need to explain yourself, and reach agreements as a family about technology, not simply lay down the law. Why not show them this commentary?
You may find that your teens are more open to setting boundaries around screen time than you think. After all, their devices are not fulfilling them. Members of iGen may be in a better position than anyone to understand that there’s nothing smart about being enslaved to a phone.
Eric Metaxas is the host of the “Eric Metaxas Show,” a co-host of “BreakPoint” radio and a New York Times #1 best-selling author whose works have been translated into more than twenty languages.
G. Shane Morris is Assistant Editor and columnist at BreakPoint.
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by BreakPoint.