Technology overuse harmful to youth mental health

April 10, 2018
Jen Janzen, ATA News Staff
Psychologist and author Jean Twenge relates the findings of her research into the effects of technology on iGen, her term for the generation of young people born in the age of ubiquitous digital technology. (CORY HARE)

Are digital devices lighting our way, or are they making our lives darker?

That was the question broached by professors Jean Twenge and Michael Rich, who spoke on April 5 in Edmonton at a public lecture entitled “(Dis)Connected, Distracted or Addicted?”

“Seeing how much face-to-face interaction teens get is really important for knowing what’s going on with their mental health,” Twenge said.

And, at a time when digital devices are being used by teens up to nine hours per day, that face-to-face interaction is becoming increasingly limited, she said.

Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, has been studying generational differences for 25 years. Using a data set based on 11 million teens surveyed from 1966 to 2016, she spoke about the huge shifts she’s seen in what she dubs the iGen — the generation born in 1995 and later, who have spent their entire adolescent lives in the presence of smartphones and tablets.

Twenge said there are many good trends within the data.

“We have so many things going for us right now, and for our kids. Fewer of us smoke, we’re healthier, we know more about nutrition.”

But today’s teens are also more depressed, more isolated and experience more major depressive episodes than teens even 10 years ago. How did it change so suddenly?
The answer, Twenge says, lies in the sudden appearance of smartphones. In 2012, it became official that more than half of the U.S. population owned a smartphone.

When Twenge first started noticing these changes, she didn’t immediately put the blame on digital media. She looked at economic factors, but found that teen depression was going up when the economy was improving.

“We’d expect that to be the other way around, that depression was linked to an economy that was falling apart,” she said.

Teens’ time online has more than doubled since 2006. Recently surveyed Grade 12 students say texting, social media and generally being online adds up to about six hours a day. It’s a conservative estimate, Twenge added, noting other surveys estimate the actual time is closer to eight or nine hours per day.
“It leaves less time for other things, such as seeing your friends in person,” she noted.

Sleep deprived

Rich, a practicing pediatrician who is also associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and associate professor of social and behavioural sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health, said he is seeing more young patients come in tired. They’re worried about their memories because they’re forgetting things in school.

He says much of the problem is simply lack of sleep.

“You ask them if they’re using their phones as alarms, but they’re also staying up late texting. They’re always online. And they have [their phone] on vibrate so their friend can send that all-important ‘WTF’ at three in the morning, and they will respond in 72 seconds to prove they still care.”

Are we addicted to technology? Twenge said it doesn’t matter if we call it addiction or overuse.

“Clearly, spending five or more hours a day online on your device is a problem,” she said. “It’s almost like the phone is using us. It should be a tool you use, not a tool that uses you.”

What can we do?

On the question of what to do, Rich says it starts with awareness.

“We have to come to a place where we realize what we feed our children’s minds is as important as what we feed their bodies.”

He suggests that families observe a regular digital fast: for one day a week, put the smartphones and tablets away and engage with each other.

Twenge said keeping the phone out of the bedroom altogether is a must.

“If you have the phone by the bed, even if it’s on vibrate, it’s not conducive to sleep. If you use it for an alarm clock, I have some very simple advice: buy an alarm clock.”

Instead of developing a killer app, Rich encourages his patients to develop what he calls their ‘killer be’s’: be balanced, be mindful and be present.

Finally, he said, showing a slide of a power button, “this is the most important feature on your device. Make sure you push it early and often.” ❚

Research colloquium
The public technology lecture preceded the Association’s day-long invitational research colloquium entitled “Growing Up Digital in Alberta: From Distraction to Addiction.” Held on April 6, this event delved into the latest research on the effects of digital technology and featured numerous discussions on the topic. Among the experts involved were Jean Twenge, Michael Rich and the University of Ottawa’s Valerie Steeves.