Stories

Smartphones making teens isolated, immature, suicidal

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Teens today are more likely to be lonely, depressed and immature than any previous generation, according to analysis published in The Atlantic. According to Jean M. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University who has been researching generational differences for 25 years, the culprit is the smartphone.

Why it matters: Physically, the iGen are safer than previous generations, but psychologically they are much more vulnerable to mental illness, including serious upticks in depression and suicide, according to the report. "There is compelling evidence that the devices we've placed in young people's hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy," writes Twenge.

What's at stake: Smartphones aren't going anywhere, and as Twenge points out, of those who suffer from depression at a young age, at least half become depressed again later in life.

What is iGen?

"Born between 1995 and 2012, members of this generation are growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet," writes Twenge. And although Millennials grew up with the Internet as well, it wasn't such an ever-present force in their lives. "A 2017 survey of more than 5,000 American teens found that three out of four owned an iPhone," notes Twenge.

Who is being directly impacted?

"These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns."

The generational divide

Today's teens are less likely to date: "[O]nly about 56 percent of high-school seniors in 2015 went out on dates; for Boomers and Gen Xers, the number was about 85 percent."

"Across a range of behaviors—drinking, dating, spending time unsupervised— 18-year-olds now act more like 15-year-olds used to, and 15-year-olds more like 13-year-olds," writes Twenge.

Reason for concern

"Since 2007, the homicide rate among teens has declined, but the suicide rate has increased. As teens have started spending less time together, they have become less likely to kill one another, and more likely to kill themselves. In 2011, for the first time in 24 years, the teen suicide rate was higher than the teen homicide rate."

The effect on girls vs. boys

"Forty-eight percent more girls said they often felt left out in 2015 than in 2010, compared with 27 percent more boys." The rate of depressive symptoms is also increasing faster in girls: Between 2012 and 2015, girls' symptoms increased by 50 percent while boys increased by 21 percent.

The rise in suicide is also greater among girls. "Three times as many 12-to-14-year-old girls killed themselves in 2015 as in 2007, compared with twice as many boys," writes Twenge, noting that "the suicide rate is still higher for boys, in part because they use more-lethal methods, but girls are beginning to close the gap."