• Mitigating the Impact of Smartphones and Social Media on Adolescents

    In this New York Times article, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (NYU’s Stern School) and psychologist Jean Twenge (San Diego State University) say that in 2012, the incidence of teenage loneliness, depression, self-harm, and suicide began to rise sharply. “By 2019,” they say, “just before the pandemic, rates of depression among adolescents had nearly doubled.”

    In a time of relative prosperity, what could explain these troubling statistics? Smartphones and social media, say Haidt and Twenge; 2012 was the first year that most Americans owned a smartphone, and by 2015, two-thirds of teenagers had one, and most were hooked on social media. Facebook had added a Like button, Twitter a retweet button, and algorithms were jiggered to amplify content that triggered emotions, creating what the authors call “an outrage machine that made life online far uglier, faster, more polarized, and more likely to incite performative shaming.” Instagram had an especially strong impact on girls and young women, “inviting them to ‘compare and despair’ as they scrolled through posts from friends and strangers showing face, bodies, and lives that had been edited and re-edited until many were closer to perfection than to reality.”

    These effects are echoed around the world, operating at the individual and group level. “The smartphone brought about a planetary rewiring of human interactions,” say Haidt and Twenge. “As smartphones became common, they transformed peer relationships, family relationships, and the texture of daily life for everyone – even those who don’t own a phone or don’t have an Instagram account. It’s harder to strike up a casual conversation in the cafeteria or after class when everyone is staring down at their phones. It’s harder to have a deep conversation when each party is interrupted randomly by buzzing, vibrating ‘notifications.’”

    The result is “an incredibly isolated group of people,” said a Canadian college student a year before the pandemic. “We have shallow friendships and superfluous romantic relationships that are mediated and governed to a large degree by social media.” He described walking into a lecture hall before class and seeing everyone silently on their devices, a manifestation of isolation and weakened self-identity and confidence.

    Can’t phones and social media be used to connect people and foster meaningful and playful communication? They can, but for many teens, it hasn’t worked out that way, say Haidt and Twenge: “It now appears that electronically mediated social interactions are like empty calories.”

    What is to be done? Clearly we can’t put the genie back in the bottle, but the authors suggest two “reasonable steps to help teens get more of what they need:”

    1. During the school day, lock phones up “so students can practice the lost art of paying full attention to the people around them – including their teachers."
    2. Kids shouldn’t be allowed to use social media before high school. Since there’s tremendous peer pressure for elementary- and middle-school students to get a phone, enforcement would need to come by requiring social media companies to implement third-party identity verification for all new accounts, preventing younger children from joining.

    As students emerge from the pandemic, during which they became even more reliant on digital communication, Haidt and Twenge believe this is the ideal time to implement these policies, helping young people wean themselves from an unhealthy dependency and enjoy better relationships – and mental health.

    “The Smartphone Trap” by Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge in The New York Times, August 1, 2021; the authors can be reached at jh3390@stern.nyu.edu and jtwenge@sdsu.edu