How smartphones make our young people unhappy
Cathal McNaughton/PA   

It’s only August, but there’s a good chance that Jean M Twenge’s essay for the Atlantic – ‘Have smartphones destroyed a generation’ – will turn out to be the most important piece of journalism published anywhere this year.

Her argument is that today’s teenagers aren’t just a bit different from previous generations, but profoundly different. That’s not a mere matter of opinion, or of older people forgetting that they were young once; as noted yesterday it can be measured as a series of dramatic shifts in behaviour. For instance:

“The number of teens who get together with their friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2015; the decline has been especially steep recently. It’s not only a matter of fewer kids partying; fewer kids are spending time simply hanging out. That’s something most teens used to do: nerds and jocks, poor kids and rich kids, C students and A students.”

Economics is not the driver here. Loafing about with your mates needn’t cost anything. Rather it’s the availability of a digital alternative. With a smartphone you can maintain a running conversion with as many or as few people as you like – and do so no matter where each of you happen to be. As with most things in life, ease drives out effort, and so digital supplants physical interaction. Indeed, once stripped of its absolute necessity, the latter becomes a choice – which, if not mutually desired and agreed upon, might also be viewed as an imposition. You only have to consider office culture, where email has supplanted face-to-face conversations and phone calls (which are increasingly regarded as intrusions or escalations).

However, electronic communication imposes its own costs – and not just by reducing the scope (and potential benefits) of actually meeting your friends:

“For all their power to link kids day and night, social media also exacerbate the age-old teen concern about being left out. Today’s teens may go to fewer parties and spend less time together in person, but when they do congregate, they document their hangouts relentlessly—on Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook. Those not invited to come along are keenly aware of it. Accordingly, the number of teens who feel left out has reached all-time highs across age groups. Like the increase in loneliness, the upswing in feeling left out has been swift and significant.”

Adults are not immune. There’s nothing like social media for making you feel small. For instance, there was a time when you didn’t have to be that jealous of the fantastic holiday that somebody else went on – not unless they invited you round to view their snaps. But now Facebook etc provide an effortless connection between the boastful and the envious.

To fully engage with social media is to make your life a product (albeit one for which you receive no payment) – a product that others not only consume, but also review in the form of ‘likes’, ‘follows’, ‘retweets’ and comments. Twenge describes the consequent affirmation-anxiety as a “psychic tax”.

As I say, this doesn’t just impact upon today’s teenagers, but theirs is the first generation to have their social lives fully immersed in an interactive digital environment. And this is physically as well as psychologically taxing:

“Fifty-seven percent more teens were sleep deprived in 2015 than in 1991. In just the four years from 2012 to 2015, 22 percent more teens failed to get seven hours of sleep.

“The increase is suspiciously timed, once again starting around when most teens got a smartphone. Two national surveys show that teens who spend three or more hours a day on electronic devices are 28 percent more likely to get less than seven hours of sleep than those who spend fewer than three hours, and teens who visit social-media sites every day are 19 percent more likely to be sleep deprived.”

So, evidence of yet another rapid generational shift – another deformation of human experience that we’re just accepting as if there’s nothing we can do about it. However, there are decisions to made here, whether at the level of the individual, the family or the nation.

Technology is not destiny.