Teens and Smartphone Use: Connected, but Lonely?

We’ve often talked about smartphones and social media on this blog. A recent NPR piece opens with a startling thought: for the first time ever, a generation of teenagers is growing up without knowing the world before smartphones. Psychologist Jean Twenge calls this cohort of adolescents “iGen,” and says that smartphones are contributing to their overall increased risk of mental health problems compared to previous generations.


Twenge told NPR that teenagers and young adults born between 1995 and 2012 are statistically safer than ever before - they are driving later, drinking less, and having safer sex than previous young adults. However, Twenge contends that these same young people are more likely to say they are anxious or lonely than previous generations were because of a reduced amount of time spent interacting in person with their peers. Adolescents and young children need these interactions in order to learn, to read, and to develop social cues, skills necessary to build support networks.


According to Twenge, reports of loneliness in teens started to rise suddenly in 2012. It was this year that, by year’s end, most Americans had a smartphone. Causation is a tricky business, but social media and smartphones have undeniably changed the landscape of adolescence in the years since then.


The question of parenting and its role in this change will undoubtedly be of a lot of interest to parents today. Children who use smartphones today are aware of their potential adverse effects - they are well versed in this subject and live its reality everyday. It is challenging for adults themselves to limit their own smartphone usage, so it is doubly important for parents to be proactive in encouraging children to be mindful of the importance of limiting hours spent staring at that small screen. Apps that limit usage and the time of access to a smartphone’s functions exist, but a parent’s role is probably the most effective when they are showing their teens the benefits of person-to-person contact and communication.