Only smartphones plus social media can explain the international collapse in the early 2010s.
One thing I haven’t seen you address head on that is inextricably linked to both smart phones and social media is pornography. The rate at which teens (and younger, sadly) are not only stumbling upon but fully engaging with pornography is alarming. I have no data to back up my gut feeling, but I feel sure that children consuming pornography absolutely has a dramatic impact on their psyche. Especially today’s pornography which is nothing like the magazines or VHS porn of a generation ago. I have seen general stats in other places, but I’d love to see this topic expanded. I’m positive it is one of the causes (internationally as well as in the U.S.). As a mother of three teens, I cannot thank you enough for your incredible work.
Thank you for doing so much to highlight these twin evils. I’m glad that Profs Twenge and Gray can ally their important voices rather than devolve into fighting over the problem. Do you remember those Reese’s commercials from the 80s, with the girl eating peanut butter running into the guy eating chocolate? I think of the loss of free play and the rise of screens as the peanut butter and chocolate in the Reese's cup of madness that has become modern childhood.
One thing to keep an eye on in the battle for screen free schools is the alarming extent to which school curricula are now screen-based. I’ll be writing about this in more detail soon but the short version is that all the kids’ reading/assignments/homework are now done on their school provided tablets, all day long!
I think there's a major piece you are missing in this, and there is research backing it up: The pendulum swing of making everything about "mental health" and "mental health awareness" for children. It's not just that we are teaching kids to be oversensitive in areas of safe spaces and micro aggressions to the point that we are teaching kids to do the opposite of good mental health and CBT principles (as so perfectly discussed in The Coddling of the American Mind) but by constantly talking about mental health, encouraging kids to ruminate on their feelings, pathologizing and giving diagnostic labels to normal and often temporary human experiences, and having unqualified school personnel and social media influencers talking about, "supporting," and raising "awareness" of mental health, we are creating mental health problems. See the following studies to support this piece to the puzzle. They are about structured school programs, but consider the effects of children and teens constantly swimming in this "mental health awareness," pathologizing of normal experiences, and therapy speak both in real life (school, friends, all the therapy they are receiving) and in online spaces (see all the Instagram and TikTok mental health accounts). Talk with people who work with kids and ask about this specifically. You will see how frequently they see this and how common this concern is.
I had a long conversation with a handsome young actor several months ago. He had decided he would never have children because of climate change and a host of other societal concerns. It made me realize how harmful and prevalent is the guilt many young people feel and what I believe is a misplaced sense of responsibility to the planet.
I have noticed my own challenges in dealing with my smart phone over the past several years. I am in my 60s, but have found the temptation of constantly scanning for tantalizing new bits of information almost impossible to overcome. I know the focus is often on the dangers of social media, but I think just as dangerous is the smart phone itself. It behaves like an information slot machine. The constant hits of addictive videos, and articles and podcasts are demoralizing over time. We are not spending time thinking without distraction. Just thinking. Not to mention spending time with other human beings. That alone affects mental health.
I think most would agree that exercise and physical activity are one of the best ways to maintain mental and physical health. Over the past 4 decades, the average weight of Americans has increased dramatically. Now, approximately 70% of the public is obese. You have writtten about play deprivation contributing to increased mental health problems in adolescents. The convenience that Smartphones create has the unintended consequence of promoting less physical activity, which fosters worsening physical and mental health. Have you looked at the relationship of decrease physical activity and increasing obesity rates as it relates to mental health problems?
Wonderful work! While I think phones and especially social media are noxious, and suspect that photos are the prime culprit for two mechanisms: our status-sensitive sociometers are uniquely triggered by visual cues to compare and fall short, and shared photos make us constantly aware of the hundred things we're missing out on, putting the "paradox of choice" on steroids.)
I also suspect that the rise in teen anxiety and depression is partly attributable to a cultural trend to lean into rather than resist or seek to overcome fragility. Growing up in the 80s I was routinely expected to do uncomfortable things: swim in a cold lake, give a two-minute talk in church, play a piano piece at a recital in front of 100 people, pickup and play whatever sport someone wanted us to try, go apologize when I hurt someone's feelings. We weren't fragile, we were weak. Things that are fragile should be left alone to avoid harm, but weakness can be overcome with exposure, practice, and exercise, eventually turning weakness into strength. More commonly, of course, for most activities no one pursued them long enough to become strong or attain any kind of mastery, but we experienced enough growth to know we weren't fragile at all, and could do hard things. There is currently an epidemic of people misidentifying weakness for fragility.
Missing alternative: Wokism. Imagine being a young, compassionate white person these days told by teachers and peers you are irrevocably racist, and that your family are oppressors and colonizers. That would have depressed me if I believed it.
Thank you for this thought-provoking post. Question: What about iPads? Many kids have those, especially younger kids. Is the word "smartphone" a catch-all label in the data for all devices, or is it really about having a phone?
The move away from “real work” and “real socialization” to screen based formats has to be examined. I see an increase of dissociative behaviors (and diagnoses), interacting through keyboards and screens is not necessarily a superior way to communicate. It may be easier and more convenient, but it’s rare that you will find a student or teacher that prefers this method.
Writing, with a pen or pencil, consolidates memories in a way that a keyboard or touchscreen never can. Much of what is “learned” is never retained after the assignment or test is completed.
Much of the communication we do with each other is also text-based. Voice conversations carry emotions, in person communication has a wealth of non verbal components including eye contact, body language and soft skills that can never be matched in screen formats, it’s like trying to communicate through a barrier.
Smart devices and computers may be good for the economy and specific tech companies but why force children into computer based “learning”? I’ve seen increases in literacy, but decreases in social skills and independence. Reading is only beneficial if the content is accurate and conveys important information that will help a child develop. I’ve seen far too many classrooms where they youth were given assignments that were based on information that was purely subjective, inflammatory or demoralizing. Useful skills like finances, building, gardening and wood shop/machine shop, cooking and sewing, child development and home economics are all useful life skills that can bring value to employers too.
Youth need aspirational goals. Avoiding teen pregnancy is one goal, but how about introducing the idea of positive outcomes, like planning for a healthy and successful family by discussing how to make healthy life choices and financial plans. Instead of allowing unfettered access to mind-melting pornography, discuss how this content is both extreme and not representative of a healthy and normal sexual relationship.
The idea that this is unsolvable is ridiculous. These devices are not necessary, and shame on schools for requiring electronic systems for participating in the public school system.
Reintroduction of real goals, measurable progress and actual end results (a beautifully designed term paper with hand drawn illustrations, a article of clothing sewn in class, a wooden bookshelf, a harvest of vegetables, a pan of brownies); all of these things, however small, enhance self esteem and a sense of accomplishment.
As always, brilliant analysis. I'm so glad you and Jon Haidt are leading this charge. (I'm going to publish this to my notes, so for those getting caught up, this is a response to Haidt and Twenge on the various explanations of the mental health crisis, and why it is most clearly and obviously phones and social media.)
Three additional considerations:
1. You argue that the effect size of the marginal hour of social media is larger than others find, and I like your argument. I agree. But I'm concerned that those who are on the other side of the argument are missing this: social media isn't the disease, it's the vehicle for the disease. It's the grimy subway railing that you touch that has a thousand pathogens. Measuring the effect size of touching the railing for an additional marginal minute isn't measuring the right thing.
What are the pathogens? Political extremism, comparisons, really bad ideas about sexuality, reverse CBT, you name it--all the terrible ideas and models that we get from social media. Our kids are getting exposed to those things on social media. (Lots of time scrolling ain't good either, but they are two different effects.)
This is complicated by the fact that my kids have neither phones nor social media, and yet my four year old knows who huggy wuggy is--from friends who have just such access. The pathogens are spreading, even to kids who don't have access to phones and social media.
We need to be careful about assuming that marginal consumption will measure social media's effects, but I'm also pointing to another implication: I want social media companies to feel some remorse for not having disinfected the railings. That's a longer-term issue, but I see the root cause of some of our most recent political polarization here--and plenty of other problems. At some point we will have to either eliminate--or learn to live well with--social media. If the latter, I'd really like to see a movement toward improving both the supply and demand sides of social media consumption.
2. I suspect that some of the impact on mental health is due to social contagion. It's not really a *different* category from the ones above, but is probably subsumed within it: we are seeing a wild uptick in mental illness *models* and people are mimicking them. And the data here is probably easy to observe too. My bet? We're probably seeing a huge increase in ADHD, ASD, Anxiety and Depression, and none in narcissism. We are not seeing increased rates of diagnosis for schizophrenia. I don't have that data, but it strikes me as relatively easy to find. My hunch is a strong one.
3. There's an underlying effect to all of these that concerns me: a turn away from risk-taking, structure, and authoritative parenting generally. I think the problem of social media has both caused and been caused by this change. When I asked a religious freedom expert why people were leaving religion, he said "they aren't. They're turning away from authority generally. Religion is just one example." I've been troubled and fascinated ever since. I agree with him. Some of what we are seeing is parents who are unwilling to tell their kids "no" when it comes to social media and phones.
What is causing this deeper cultural shift? I don't know. It's something I'm working on. But I think it's fair to say that compassion, empathy, and kindness are viewed as good, whereas authority, reproof, and strictness are viewed as bad. I'm concerned about how that will collide with parenting decisions on social media--and have my own reasons for wanting to pursue it further.
Great post! I do think there’s an obvious and significant contribution to teen/young adult social outcomes from mobile phone technology (i.e. digitally mediated socialization), and the general minimization of this set of alternative arguments seems reasonable. Nonetheless, there are other arguments not considered here: intersexual dynamics, intrasexual dynamics, obesity, sports participation, and a broader consideration of technological effects. Additionally, there is a lot complexity here that I’m not sure just pointing at the phone itself will solve (especially because I don’t think anyone will be convinced to give them up). The relevant causal relationships don’t just all flow in the same direction down from phones either. Even if phone tech is the x-factor here, there are going to be feedback loops and the meandering paths of indirect effects that have to be causally sketched if reasonable interventions can be found.
I really appreciate Jean’s research and yours. As a parent of younger children, The Coddling of the American Mind has directed our emphasis on more of a free range childhood, and feels like the first of two major parenting decisions we hope will help their mental health (the second being to delay smartphones/social media). Our oldest recently took the public bus home from Jr high for the first time and asked to take a phone for the journey. My response: “A phone won’t help you--looking out the window and asking questions will.” Thank you for the confidence to parent a little differently.
The most uncomfortable fact for the social media hypothesis is that, aside from the Anglosphere, suicides among young people in other countries have been stable or even declining, even though they all have smart phones. Perhaps there is some way to resolve this, but this seems like a significant piece of counterevidence that should be acknowledged more openly.
I am wondering if you had any response to it?
Ok, I’m convinced... now what do we do about it?
Thank you for the analysis, Jean and Jon-- very thorough and thought-provoking. As a candidate for complementary explanation #14, how about parental pressure and escalating perfectionism? Perfectionism has increased over time, predicted in part by rising perceptions of excessive expectations and harsh criticism from parents (Curran & Hill, 2019, 2022, Psych Bulletin). Perfectionism, in turn, predicts a host of mental health challenges (Limburg, Watson, Hagger, & Egan, 2017, J Clinical Psych). This wouldn't fully explain the spike since 2011, of course. But do you think it's a contributing factor, either directly or as an amplifier of smartphone effects?
I'm excited to see people arguing socio-pathological causes from REAL DATA rather than just saying what sounds good. Now I'm going to say something that will sound HORRIBLE and hope that you will offer data to disprove it: One major factor in the rise of psychopathology in younger folks is the proliferation of two-career couples and one-parent families. The idea that the best use of an adult's talents is to stay home and give full attention to their offspring sounds so antiquated and misogynist that I wouldn't dare say it to a woman's face... but that doesn't make it a lie. Children need more individual attention and love and guidance and correction than they're getting, than they CAN get from a parent who's absent or (same thing, really) exhausted.