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ANALYSIS: Smartphone hazards and adolescents

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a transcript from R. Albert Mohler Jr.’s podcast, The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP) — Researcher Jean Twenge has written an article in the Atlantic that is rightfully getting a great deal of attention. She asked the question: “Have smartphones destroyed a generation?”

The subhead in her article is this: “More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.”

Her article opens up with a conversation she had with a 13-year-old about her life online. The girl is identified as Athena — not her real name. She is said to live in Houston, Texas. She’s had an iPhone since she was 11. She told Twenge that she has spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, according to Athena. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones,” she said.

Then this: “I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”

Now to this point Twenge offers us some generational analysis; it’s pretty interesting. You know, in the mainframe, the kind of pattern of generations from the greatest generation as they were called to the baby boomers and then of course to generation X and the millennials or generation Y. But now we are looking at adolescents and preadolescents and here they’re simply identified as the post-millennials. In any event, we know they’re living different lives — digitally and electronically. Also, it turns out socially and perhaps psychiatrically.

What we are told is that these adolescents and preadolescents are increasingly living their entire lives online. These children and young people are increasingly losing interest in relationships, as well as the ability to relate.

They are offering some very interesting patterns of life. They generally are not now getting drivers licenses when they’re 16, many of them don’t even have driver’s licenses when they graduate from high school. Why? Because they no longer look to the automobile as the vehicle or the conduit for the kind of relating that teenagers and adolescence have yearned to do in the past. Furthermore, they’re not dating, according to Twenge in this article.

“The shift,” she says, “is stunning: 12th-graders in 2015 were dating less often than eighth-graders did as recently as 2009.”

Now at this point, the moral issue here is not dating in adolescent socialization. It’s the massive shift away from all relating and all socialization with these young people living their lives increasingly entirely online. Courtship has largely disappeared. Now it’s just a matter of talking or “liking” online. Of course there’s also the danger of not being “liked,” according to the contemporary digital parlance, more on that in just a moment.

It’s interesting that in this article Twenge says that today’s adolescents and preadolescents are spending more time in their houses with their parents and families than at any point in recent American history. But here’s the thing, they’re actually spending less time in terms of relationships or communication or conversation with those very same people. They’re in the house, but they’re not in conversation with the other human beings in the house, they’re in communication — digital socialization — with people who may be somewhere else in the world. And this is leading to a very fragile psychological and psychiatric state. Furthermore, it’s not just a problem in the United States.

Twenge writes: “Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.”

Now, later in the article she says:

“Psychologically they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration,” she writes, “to describe [this new generation] as being on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades.”

She concludes: “Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

Later, she writes this: “There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives — and making them seriously unhappy.”

They’re also not growing up. Later in the article she cites a great deal of evidence and then she summarizes: “18-year-olds now act more like 15-year-old used to, and 15-year-olds more like 13-year-olds. Childhood,” she says, “now stretches well into high school.”

Looking at a great deal of data, and especially in terms of how adolescents and preadolescents describe themselves as more and less happy, Twenge says this: “There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all non-screen activities are linked to more happiness.”

She explains: “Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who devote less time to social media.”

She says this: “If you were going to give advice for a happy adolescence based on this survey, it would be straightforward: Put down the phone, turn off the laptop, and do something — anything — that does not involve a screen.”

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  • R. Albert Mohler Jr.