Teenagers believe smartphones make them more popular and less depressed

Teenagers believe smartphones make them more popular and less depressed

By ALESSANDRA MALITO Published: Sept 12, 2018 1:52 p.m. ET

Teenagers say social media and smartphones make them happier, but that may be a dangerous sentiment considering the weight of evidence showing otherwise.

The share of teenagers who use social media has jumped dramatically in the last six years, from 34% in 2012 to 70% in 2018, according to a self-reported survey of more than 1,000 teenagers by Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit focused on safe technology use for families. In 2018, just 32% of teens said they prefer to communicate in person, down from 49% six years ago.

Perhaps most concerning is their belief that social media actually helps improve their mental health, experts say. Of the teenagers surveyed, a significant number said social media made them feel more popular (21%), more confident (20%) and better about themselves (18%), the report found. Far fewer said it made them feel more anxious (8%), more depressed (3%) and more lonely (3%).

‘It is troubling that youth at the highest risk are the ones who care the most about social networking and online communities.’

Harold Koplewicz, president of the New York-based Child Mind Institute
However, a higher number of vulnerable teenagers (11%) — who scored at the lowest end of the researchers’ “social-emotional well-being scale” — said social media made them more depressed and 29% said it made them feel less depressed. “It’s possible that the beneficial effects of social media, for vulnerable teens, have increased over the past six years,” the report found.

“It is troubling that youth at the highest risk are the ones who care the most about social networking and online communities,” Harold Koplewicz, president of the New York-based Child Mind Institute, wrote in the report. “These are the children who can be the most negatively affected by cyberbullying and who can become distraught over the expectations built into curating their online selves.”

“But they are also the kids who benefit from finding communities to embrace them, from being able to interact freely and practice social skills in a safe space online,” he added. Koplewicz said social media can also make teens feel less lonely and more confident. “This is our experience as mental health professionals, when children and adolescents are allowed to have developmentally appropriate, time-limited access to positive social media and online content.”

Puppy face filters and bursting digital confetti aside, however, these platforms can become a dark place, especially for teens. Smartphone addiction among teenagers is linked with higher scores in depression, anxiety, insomnia severity and impulsivity, a report presented by the Radiological Society of North America last year found. (Some 93% of teenagers own a smartphone, up from 50% in 2013, according to a separate report released by Deloitte last year.)

Children who spend more time on their phones have more disruptive sleep and more symptoms of depression, according to a survey of 3,134 adolescents presented at the annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, a joint venture of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society in June. Social media, surfing and watching TV and playing games all contribute to these depressive symptoms. Gaming was the biggest culprit.

Social media can be a harsh place for young people who are just starting to form their own sense of self, said Sierra Filucci, executive editor of parenting content at Common Sense Media. They may label themselves as less attractive or less cool if they don’t have the latest designer clothes or discover they weren’t invited to a big party that’s splashed all over Instagram. They may even be introduced to bad habits like smoking or unhealthy dieting.

Teenagers who spend more time on their phones or looking at screens, like computers and video games, were unhappier than their counterparts who spent time outside, read magazines, or socialized face-to-face, according to a report by Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University psychology professor. Twenge and her colleagues crunched surveys of more than 1 million students from the 8th, 10th and 12th grades about their time on devices.

The good news: Some teenagers are aware of their dependency on to the smartphone. More than half of teens were worried they spent too much time on mobile devices, according to a Pew Research Center report released in August, and they were attempting to fix it. Some felt anxious when they left home without their phones, or felt lonely or upset when they were without one.

Solutions include engaging more with family members and friends face-to-face, removing their phones from the dinner table and putting the phone in another room before it’s time for bed, Filucci said. Parents can help their children set limits or create screen-free times and areas in the home, too. “Teens and parents can specifically focus on how to be more mindful of their device use,” she said.


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