How Screen Time Impacts Teens’ Mental Health

Mental health struggles are increasing across the U.S., continuing a decade-long trend.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five U.S. adults suffered from mental illness in 2021. Most striking is that at least half of U.S. adolescents suffered with some form of mental health. Of those with mental health disorders, 22.2% suffered from severe impairment as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV.

Unfortunately, this is a trend which has been documented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey for over a decade. In 2009, 26.1% of high school students experienced persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness, rising to 36.7% in 2019, with half of female students reporting these feelings.

Even more disturbing, 18.8% of high school students seriously considered attempting suicide in 2019, up from 13.8% in 2009. Female students were twice as likely as male students to formulate a plan, causing 3.3% of high school females to experience an injury related to a suicide attempt in 2019 (up from 2.3% in 2009).

These are scary numbers. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2021 and 2022 are expected to be much worse when the data is released later this year. What is going on?

Jean Twenge, a psychologist who has studied generational differences for over 30 years, argued in 2017 and in her new book Generations, that “The allure of independence, so powerful to previous generations, holds less sway over today’s teens.”

They are less motivated to go out and experience the world or break away from their family of origin, she says, explaining that this generation is defined by the smartphone and social media.

While we have heard anti-technology rhetoric like this since the advent of the radio, consider this: my generation grew up with the invention of the internet and my parents where the first to watch too much television.

So, Twenge may be on to something in that the iPhone was introduced in 2007 with the iPad following in 2010. By 2017, three out of every four teenagers had a smartphone. This lines up with the time frame above.

My parents were the first generation to watch world crises shortly after they happened. Walter Cronkite’s reports on the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam are echoed in the memory of a generation forever.

My generation went a step further and witnessed the rise of the 24-hour cable news channel. Today, the evolution is complete, as alerts come in real-time with interactive video and commentary begging you to respond with a tweet 24-7.

I am not saying that Apple and Android smartphones are the root of all 21st century teen angst. Nor am I saying social media platforms are causing teen suicides. What I am saying is that we have had a giant cultural shift, and our cultural obsession with social media is a symptom, not a cause.

The problem here is twofold. First, younger teens are not cognitively or emotionally ready to be bombarded with the consistent negative messages from mass media or prepared to process a never-ending supply of world crises or Facebook drama. Second, and most significant, interacting with one’s peers over social media will never replace authentic, in-person human social interaction.

Human beings are what Aristotle described as political animals; we need direct interaction with other people even to the point of experiencing physical touch in order to thrive.

Video conferencing can supplement a long-distance relationship temporarily, but at the stage of adolescent emotional and social development, one is discovering who they are and what kind of person they want to become. This demands the real thing, not an Amazon Prime Video watch party.

The theologian-psychologist James W. Fowler (1940-2015) described adolescent development through peer interaction by saying, “I see you, see me. I see the me, I think you see.”

In short, we learn who we are by experiencing how we perceive ourselves in other people’s eyes, and this is not something that works very well simply by joining a match of Battle Royal.

The problem is not electronic devices. The problem is that society is shifting away from real, authentic social interaction and replacing it with shadowy Socratic images projected on a five-inch screen.

This is seen in a 2018 Pew study which revealed that only 20% of teens claimed to have six or more close friends. We are more connected than any generation in human history but have fewer meaningful relationships.

Fewer intimate friendships mean fewer individuals to help us carry our angst and to offer support when we are facing depression or despair. No wonder young people are facing a mental health crisis.

Where do we go from here? We need to step back and realize that children are children. They are not ready to be bombarded by intense images and emotions every moment of the day. They are still figuring out who they are.

Therefore, we need to create safe spaces for them to waste time doing nothing with their four best friends because it is in those face-to-face interactions where they learn who they are, the nature of honesty, the value of trust and how to be loyal. In other words, they learn how to become good moral citizens.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week calling attention to May as Mental Health Month. The previous article in the series is:

Churches Can Help ‘Stamp Out Stigma’ Around Mental Health | Starlette Thomas

Addressing Mental Health Post-Pandemic | Michael Chancellor 

Remove Logs, Save Lives: Affirming Trans Youth | Kali Cawthon-Freels

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