Betteridge’s law of headlines says “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”
Which certainly applies to the very provocative title of a recent article in The Atlantic: Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?
The author tries very hard to convince the reader that teenagers (the group she calls iGen) who “spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy”, more prone to depression, and at greater risk for suicide.
There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.
But at the generational level, when teens spend more time on smartphones and less time on in-person social interactions, loneliness is more common.
So is depression. Once again, the effect of screen activities is unmistakable: The more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression.
After reading the article, I’m not at all convinced of definitive claims like this.
Certainly smartphones have “radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives”, at least the lives of those kids who are financially able to own them. On the other hand, I could also say the same about myself and many other adults.
However, is the technology entirely to blame for any psychological problem she sees in the teenagers she has been studying? Where are the adults, especially parents, in all this? And the fundamental question that always needs to be asked in any human research, is behavior A the direct cause of behavior B?
I don’t think the author is entirely sure either.
Of course, these analyses don’t unequivocally prove that screen time causes unhappiness; it’s possible that unhappy teens spend more time online. But recent research suggests that screen time, in particular social-media use, does indeed cause unhappiness.
What’s the connection between smartphones and the apparent psychological distress this generation is experiencing? For all their power to link kids day and night, social media also exacerbate the age-old teen concern about being left out.
Ok, I’m not an expert in this area. I haven’t read the research and don’t have any countervailing evidence to present.
But I always have many doubts when someone definitively attributes great harm, or benefits, to a particular technology.
In this case, I’m extremely hesitant to accept the author’s conjecture that we are losing an entire generation (which I understood to encompass thirty years) to a technology that has only really been widespread in society for less than a decade.