Technology × Freedom

No, Smartphones Don’t Cause Teen Depression

August 28, 2017 invisiblehand

If you’ve read the September 2017 issue of The Atlantic, you might have noticed an attention-grabbing headline: “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The author, Jean Twenge, is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me and iGen. That latter book title is Twenge’s preferred term for the post-millennial generation, so you can pretty well surmise what her answer will be. After all, if the most predominant feature of the upcoming generation is the fact that they use Apple products, what else but the use of Apple products could be to blame for all of that generation’s problems?

To Twenge’s credit, she doesn’t make this conclusion outright. But it’s strongly implied:

Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs, and many of the distinctive characteristics of the Millennial generation began to disappear. In all my analyses of generational data—some reaching back to the 1930s—I had never seen anything like it.

…The biggest difference between the Millennials and their predecessors was in how they viewed the world; teens today differ from the Millennials not just in their views but in how they spend their time. The experiences they have every day are radically different from those of the generation that came of age just a few years before them.

What happened in 2012 to cause such dramatic shifts in behavior? ….[I]t was exactly the moment when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent.

If the implied connection isn’t strong enough, she later opines:

Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.

For someone with a PhD, Twenge’s reasoning here smacks of shallowness. Correlation is not causation, nor is a symptom the same as a disease. But this kind of pseudo-academic postulating is part and parcel of scientism, which has run amok in academia. As I’ve mentioned before, scientism is the misguided application of the scientific method outside of the natural sciences of physics, biology, and so on. In this case, Twenge has applied the scientific method to a social and cultural trend, treating as data and deterministic forces things that aren’t clearly quantifiable or experimentally controllable. Thus, her preposterous suggestion that a piece of technology has “destroyed a generation.”

Here’s a key question Twenge fails to consider: Why do some teens use smartphones and social media far less frequently than their average peers? And are there major differences between these teens’ family and social environments and those of their smartphone-obsessed peers? For example, are heavy social media users more likely to have divorced parents? Are they more likely to attend a public school versus a private school or homeschool? Are they more likely to live in urban, suburban, or rural areas? Are they more likely to be active members of a local religious community? Are their parents more likely to allow them unsupervised, unrestricted access to social media versus having parental controls or a social media “curfew” at night? Twenge herself acknowledges:

Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent, while those who play sports, go to religious services, or even do homework more than the average teen cut their risk significantly.

Her choice of words is telling here. She presumes that using social media is what “increases their risk” of depression, instead of the more accurate statement that social media is associated with an increased rate of depression. Her equivocations blur the line between correlation and causation. But more telling is her failure to address the obvious question: what are the underlying factors that cause some kids to prefer other activities (sports, religious services, homework) over using social media, and might these underlying factors also have something to do with the unequal rates of depression? Twenge doesn’t seem interested in following the chain of correlation back more than one or two links. Social media users are depressed; that’s enough. No more information is needed.

It comes down to this: Twenge mistakes effect for cause. Teens are always on social media; therefore, they feel isolated and depressed. Rather, could it be that the familial, social, spiritual, philosophical, educational, etc. environments in which today’s teens grow up have created a psychological void, and that the emotional problems that result are merely exacerbated when teens turn to social media falsely expecting that it will fill the preexisting void?

But in our politically correct, increasingly egalitarian-minded society, there is a stigma associated with any criticism of someone else’s personal choices or feelings. This includes any criticism of the culture at large, the decisions that teenagers make, or various parenting styles (unless any of those things themselves are critical or intolerant of others). So, technology takes the blame. Politicians and media do the same thing when they blame the Internet and social media for radicalization and terrorism, or for neo-Nazi hate groups, or for unfavorable election results (fake news did it!). This is a boon for the politicians, as government intervention is almost always called for in these cases.

In reality, social media use – and technology in general – is probably more of a barometer than a cause. How much teenagers use social media – and the effect it has on them – is, I would guess, a decent indicator of the kind of emotional and psychological state they were already in. But that won’t stop politicians from demanding regulations be placed on social media companies to, for instance, curb cyberbullying. Many state laws define cyberbullying to include “social exclusion” – i.e. not inviting Jimmy to your birthday party – and public schools are required to address these issues. Why shouldn’t social media be held accountable, too? This idea is already being discussed. Of course, regulation will only mask the symptom. It won’t cure the disease.