The Unhealthy State of the Smartphone Age
BY JEAN M. TWENGE/School Administrator, June 2019

From studying today’s teenagers, Jean Twenge sees considerable downsides stemming from their electronic communication obsessions.
When I asked a high school junior — let’s call him Kevin — what makes his generation different, he didn’t hesitate.

“My generation has lost interest in socializing in person — they don’t have physical get-togethers, they just text together and they can just stay at home,” he said when I interviewed him for my book iGen.

Kevin is onto something. The way teenagers spend their time outside of school has shifted fundamentally. Being a teen always has meant hanging out with friends, but that increasingly happens virtually rather than face-to-face. In the large nationally representative surveys I analyzed for the book, 8th graders in 2017 got together with their friends 68 fewer times a year than in the early 1990s. High school seniors went out on dates 32 fewer times a year. Between 1987 and 2016, high school seniors spent an hour a day less socializing or partying with friends.

What are they doing instead? The average high school senior in 2017 spent six hours a day texting, online and on social media during their time outside of school.

Verbally Incommunicado
It’s not just leisure time. In schools that allow phones during the school day, fewer students talk to each other face-to-face during lunch period or other free times, leaving some feeling left out.

“I found myself finishing my lunch and sitting there in utter silence wondering what to do,” a high school sophomore told me about the year his friends got cellphones. “I had started to think that there was something wrong with me that would cause people to not want to talk to me anymore, and I started to have serious self-esteem issues.”

Olivia, a high school senior, agrees. “At school, people are quieter. They all are on their technology ignoring each other. … A lot of my friends are addicted to their phones [and] seem like they do not want to talk to me.”

Some have argued that teens communicating electronically is no big deal — they’re connecting with their friends, so who cares how they do it? In this view, electronic communication is just as good as in-person communication.

The problem: It’s not. Teens who spend more time with their friends in person are happier, and those who spend more time online are less happy. Just as smartphones became common around 2011, youth mental health began to suffer. Rates of depression, self-harm and suicide increased sharply, and happiness and life satisfaction fell. The age of the smartphone has not been a mentally healthy one for teens.

Temporary Quarantine
School administrators have a role to play in addressing this unhealthy condition. They should consider eliminating student access to smartphones during the school day, opening bell to closing bell. The halfway position of allowing phones in classrooms for “instructional purposes” tends not to work — it’s too difficult to enforce and too tempting for students to grab their phones during class or stare at them for the entire lunch period.

When phones are instead deposited in lockers or other secure locations for the entire school day, teachers can focus on teaching rather than chasing students off their phones. Students learn to concentrate without ruminating over what they’ll find on their phones at the end of the period and might even hold a conversation over lunch. This is a better formula for learning and a better formula for mental health.

Banning school-day phone use also accomplishes another goal: Helping students learn social skills. More and more workplace managers tell me that young interviewees don’t look them in the eye and seem to be uncomfortable talking to people face-to-face. If our students are going to succeed in their occupational lives, they need more practice interacting with people in person. That can happen at school only if they aren’t on their phones.

Whose Tool?
It’s also important to help students find alternatives to overusing the smartphone at home. When I’ve presented on my work at middle and high schools, iGen students are enthusiastic about learning how to manage their phone time. They know they spend too much time with screens, and they want specific strategies for ensuring their screen time doesn’t interfere with their sleep and their time with friends.

Smartphones aren’t going away. At the same time, we can be more mindful about how we use technology. iGen students need to hear it from us: The smartphone should be a tool you use, not a tool that uses you.

JEAN TWENGE is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. Twitter: @jean_twenge