Between 2010 and 2016, the number of adolescents who experienced at least one major depressive episode leapt by 60%, according to a nationwide survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The 2016 survey of 17,000 kids found that about 13% of them had a major depressive episode, compared to 8% of the kids surveyed in 2010. Suicide deaths among people age 10 to 19 have also risen sharply, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Young women are suffering most; a CDC report released earlier this year showed suicide among teen girls has reached 40-year highs. All this followed a period during the late-1990s and early 2000s when rates of adolescent depression and suicide mostly held steady or declined.
Using data collected between 2010 and 2015 from more than 500,000 adolescents nationwide, Twenge’s study found kids who spent three hours or more a day on smartphones or other electronic devices were 34% more likely to suffer at least one suicide-related outcome—including feeling hopeless or seriously considering suicide—than kids who used devices two hours a day or less. Among kids who used electronic devices five or more hours a day, 48% had at least one suicide-related outcome.
Some research has already linked media multitasking—texting, using social media and rapidly switching among smartphone-based apps—with lower gray-matter volume in the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a region involved in emotion processing and decision making. More research has associated lower ACC volumes with depression and addiction disorders.
“We know for a fact teens have very underdeveloped impulse control and empathy and judgment compared to adults,” Jensen says. This may lead them to disturbing online content or encounters —stuff a more mature mind would know to avoid. Teens also have a hyperactive risk-reward system that allows them to learn—but also to become addicted—much more quickly than grown-ups, she says. Research has linked social media and other phone-based activities with an uptick in feel-good neurochemicals like dopamine, which could drive compulsive device use and promote feelings of distraction, fatigue, or irritability when kids are separated from their phones. Another area of the brain—the prefrontal cortex—is critical for focus and interpreting human emotion, and doesn’t fully develop until a person’s mid-20s, says Paul Atchley, a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas. “During our teenage years, it’s important to train that prefrontal cortex not to be easily distracted,” he says. “What we’re seeing in our work is that young people are constantly distracted, and also less sensitive to the emotions of others.”
How teens ‘talk’
Colleen Nisbet has been a high school guidance counselor for more than two decades. One of her duties at Connecticut’s Granby Memorial High School is to monitor students during their lunch periods. “Lunch was always a very social time when students were interacting and letting out some energy,” she says. “Now they sit with their phones out and barely talk to each other.”
This scene—of kids collecting in parks or at one another’s houses only to sit silently and stare at screens—comes up over and over again when talking with parents and kids. “When you’re with people you don’t know well or there’s nothing to talk about, phones are out more because it’s awkward,” says Shannon Ohannessian, a 17-year-old senior at Farmington High School in Connecticut.
That avoidance of face-to-face interaction worries Brian Primack, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health. “Human beings are social animals,” he says. “We evolved over millions of years to respond to eye contact and touch and shared laughter and real things right in front of us.” There’s strong research linking isolation to depression, and time spent socializing with improved mood and well-being. If smartphones are getting between an adolescent and her ability to engage in and enjoy face-to-face interaction—and some studies suggest that’s happening—that’s a big deal, Primack says. Gina Spiers, an English teacher at San Lorenzo High School near Oakland, Calif., says she used to confiscate phones, but students would panic and cause a disruption in class. She and her school are fighting back—with encouraging results. Starting this fall, San Lorenzo High joined several schools nationwide in working with a company called Yondr to restrict smartphone access during school hours. Yondr makes small, lockable phone pouches that students keep with them, but that can’t be opened until the end of the day. “The changes have already been profound,” says Allison Silvestri, San Lorenzo’s principal. Kids are more focused and engaged during class, and student journals suggest the high schoolers are feeling less anxious and more relaxed. Silvestri says fewer fights have broken out this semester—a benefit she attributes to the absence of social media. “They have to look each other in the eye to make conflict happen,” she says. “There’s so much more joy and interaction, and I can’t count the number of parents who have asked me, ‘How do I buy this for my home?’”
The smartphone experiment at San Lorenzo doesn’t meet the standards of the scientific method. But it’s one more piece of evidence linking mobile devices with the troubles today’s teen are facing. While there are no doubt helpful and healthy ways young people could use smartphones to enrich their lives, it’s becoming harder to argue that the status quo—near-ubiquitous teen smartphone ownership, coupled with more-or-less unfettered Internet access—is doing kids good.