Are smartphones to blame for the mental health crisis among teens? The debate has picked up steam lately, in part because of the steady accumulation of evidence that they are indeed, at least partially. (As you know, I’m a believer.) Jonathan Haidt has done considerable work marshaling this evidence. But there’s an attendant question of
"When I was young, when you wanted to see people, to be social, you had to actually go and see people. You had to arrange a hangout."
And often not even arrange. There were places where you to go and kids your age would be there. We didn't have a mall, but had the town park. There was also a game arcade back when pinball was two games for a quarter..
You'd chat with a dude. Then see him again a week later. Pretty soon you and some other new guy would be at his place helping replace the spark plugs on his hand-me-down '67 Impala. Then it's "I'm picking up tickets to see Tull next month. Wanna go?"
Even after everyone scattered for college, military or whatever, every return visit to home over the years would include stopping by his family's house to see if he was around. If so, off to the bar for a few games of pool while chatting about life.
Then wives and kids and careers made those reunions impossible. But after the kids were grown and social media came along it was possible to reconnect. But it's not the same, is it?
I agree but the biggest impact is one you dont mention. The phone is an enormous attention suck resulting in immeasurable opportunity costs for experiencing anything and everything. Shakespeare said the soul of joy is in the doing. And the phones displace doing. They kill joy. So yeah.
I'm very lucky that my tween daughter is not that much into social media. She has Facebook and Instagram, but doesn't really use them that much. I've always believed that idle hands do Devil's work, so I tried to keep my kids busy with doing things, as opposed to just sitting at home with a screen. It costs time and money to do this, but I feel that as a parent you need to be pro-active. My son likes being outside so we go on a lot of weekend trips. I think most kids see how fake social media is, but network effect makes it hard from them to stay away.
Statistics for teen girl's mental health are atrocious.
Your points on relationship overload and real-world social replacement feel only half-right. A big part of what makes the internet feel so hollow is the near impossibility of actually having a connection given how “social” networks are designed. All of these places allow for pseudonymous or anonymous profiles and even if presenting as “you” the costs to engage in social interaction and to disengage are so small, and the pool of people so large that there’s just nothing there. On this site I am a name and an initial with a blob of color. I expect no one to recognize me from the few other comments I’ve made, and if they do I don’t expect them to remember much of me or have much of a sense of who I am. I expect to maybe get one or two likes for my comment at most, probably no reply, and if I do get a reply I’ll probably feel little interest in responding, and if I do it will be a response to an abstract idea and not to a person, as I’ll probably pay as little attention to who replied as they did to me, other than the words being expressed. In most online spaces, unless you are the debatably fortunate few to have a “following”, you as a person have no substance, and it is only the memes you propagate (in the academic and internet-culture sense) that have any life. And yet here I am posting this comment, for reasons I can’t entirely understand
Tl:dr this comment.
It's not the phones per se.
Apart from scale (so much information close at hand through a pocket size Internet connection & craftily structured platforms) I'm not sure that most of these influences weren't always a glance away in the age of mass media.
When I grew up in the 70s & 80s there was always much hand-wringing about these kind of influences (beauty, success, wealth) and how they supposedly harmed impressionable young minds.
The thing that seems new to me is the constant opinion airing and judgement. That, for me, was the part of this article that resonated. I had one friendship group who did this, in the 80s. I came to notice that hanging out with them wasn't at all enriching & that was that.
But now, it's the scaling up of that miserable finger-wagging that I'd speculate has the most unsettling effect on people who are prone to caring. And leftishist influence, relentlessly going on about 'structural' injustice. No wonder its liberals scoring worst on self-reported wellbeing.
I wonder, also, about books. Books are the main escape for high school nerds too uncool to go to parties. They tell you there's more to the world than your boring town and dumb classmates.... Reading On the Road makes everyone insufferable, sure, but also gives the uniquely teen joy of dreaming about a future of jazz joints and road trips.
FYI Matt Bruenig challenges the notion that there's actually good data that people are having less sex: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ikVKqVs2eX0
All these things are probably true, but I think it's much simpler:
Checking your Twitter/TikTok/Instagram/Reddit home page provides an easier, cheaper dopamine hit that just about any other activity has in human history. This means that smartphones are probably responsible just because they provide easy access to apps and websites that are (by design) growing more and more addictive every year.
I've been dealing with some other neurological health problems the last couple years which likely have made me more vulnerable, but at various points I've experienced literal withdrawal symptoms when stopping using the internet cold turkey, that took several weeks to go away, after which I felt noticeably better.
As some other commenters have noted, there's almost certainly a physical addictive component of this. People get addicted to checking their phone just like they get addicted to alcohol or cigarettes. If you're lucky enough not be affected, you might find this hard to believe, but after comparing notes with lots of friends my age (without similar health issues as mine), I've found this conclusion harder and harder to avoid.
Alcohol addiction causes anxiety and depression. Opioid addiction causes anxiety and depression. Weed addiction (which is, contrary to popular belief in the pre-legalization era, obviously real!) causes anxiety and depression.
I'm almost certain that social media addiction, video game addiction, porn addiction, etc. cause anxiety and depression too, and smartphones have helped most of these problems skyrocket over the last 10 years.
Have to say that I appreciate the tastefully gauche use of good old-fashioned stock photos for this article. Some classic Internet nostalgia, from the days before Midjourney and whatnot started putting out...well, let's call it "a simulacra of fulfilling human art". Not to say it isn't interesting in many regards! But there's something very __human__ about the corporate blandness of Shutterstock or ClipArt that I think does scratch some primal aesthetic itch, in a backwards sort of way anyway. Bad art is still art.
As to the actual meat of the piece, I've been on the anti-social-media anti-phones bandwagon since forever, so would be inclined to agree regardless of the merits. I'm a little more leery of Jonathan Haidt these days - he's straying closer than I'd prefer to the, like, Robert Reich/Paul Krugman/etc road of Former Serious Guy Starting Second Career As Pundit Public Intellectual - but research is research, someone's gotta do it. Sure as hell isn't gonna be industry-funded. [Insert classic Upton Sinclair quote here.]
There definitely was a time within my living memory (and I'm not that old!) when my default assumption of a young person, especially female, was not "likely depressed and/or anxious", and that's soberly saddening. I guess every generation ends up wondering if The Kids Will Be Alright, so now it's my turn. Adolescence sucked a lot for me too, but for the regular anodyne reasons...my window out to the world from Small Parochial Town was newspapers and whichever random strangers I might meet via, say, World of Warcraft. Back then, it seemed like escaping Teenage Wasteland just required moving to The City, joining modern society...a challenge, but still eminently doable. I can't imagine having vastly more of the entire world at one's fingertips now, and somehow still not finding that "enough"...(there are still many days I can't really believe it's possible for me to access all the world's music/TV/whatever practically whenever wherever I want. The 90s were better, for sure, but let's call a miraculous spade a spade nonetheless. Teenage me woulda much preferred history's greatest back catalogue of the arts to a car...unless it was a flying one, anyway.)
"But even beyond contrary opinion, I think there’s a question of just too many opinions, that we aren’t equipped to come into contact with the sheer volume of points of view that we do in the 21st century. The firehose of opinion overwhelms and destabilizes us."
Yes. Sheer volume has really gotten to be a problem. I've been a very online comment writer for over 20 years, and the game isn't what it used to be 15 years ago, back when comment sections only rarely reached 150 comments. I used to read every post in a given story comment section before adding my own, because I didn't want to repeat something already said by another poster, and I wanted to have a good sense of the points being brought up and argued. Over the years, it's often gotten to be impossible to read comment sections in their entirety. Sometimes one reply thread can be too much to wade through, even if I have no intention of posting. I read fast and enjoy what other people call "text walls", but I just find myself swamped. It's like a Battle Royal with 100 contestants swinging at each other. I used to enjoy taking on multiple opponents in debate. But while I can handle maybe 4 or 5 of them, I can't grapple with 20.
It's an important problem to note, because censorship is not the only way to foreclose open discussion. A focused group of axe-grinders can basically spam a discussion with so many posts that the result is tantamount to shouting down all dissent.
I think an aspect not fully mentioned here is the physical addiction to the phone, the way the endless scroll sucks your executive function, your motivation, your willpower to plan a get-together or get up off the couch or even get out of bed. Almost anything that is rewarding in life requires some amount of long-term planning and the mental fortitude to make yourself do difficult/boring things that don't have any immediate payoff. This becomes almost impossible when there is an instant dopamine hit in your pocket, under your pillow, disrupting your brain's reward function. It's been challenging enough to deal with this in my own adult brain, but I can't imagine what it is doing to brains that are still developing.
This may be what you meant by Cacophony of Opinion, but one reason I think is the stress of being on stage all the time. Think of the stress you feel in real life when you are about to give a speech or present something to an audience, now imagine a constant low-level buzz version of that all the time. Your words and pictures are always out there, for everyone to see, 24/7, no let up - you are always standing in front of an audience.
I think it's partially these but I don't think that's the whole picture. On some level I think it's the same reason why drugs are bad for mental health. I think there's a very physical element to the repeated stimulation and pace of social media. Those psychological problems are real, but it's also true that never having any time to daydream or be alone with your thoughts or ponder and constantly seeing things that are stimulating outside of your own mind is not healthy when your mind is developing.
In a lot of ways I really think it's similar to cocaine or something like that. It's just a very physical problem with people's dopamine systems becoming blunted.
Boredom and down time plays an important cognitive role for everyone, but especially for people whose brains are developing imo. That's how creativity is born, for instance. And if you're training your brain to be in a state of constantly seeking content stimulation, you're basically going to live your life like you're on a sugar crash all the time
For someone who doesn't get Adam Curtis documentaries, this is a very Adam Curtis-y set of hypotheses! You just need to put helvetica font in lime green or pink over those stock images ;)
I remember even though smartphones were not a thing, as a teenager I started using social media -- Facebook when I was... 14-15? And I got cyber bullied like a group just targeted me, super fucked up, I didn’t know them and they just sent me hateful messages and reposted my photos with cruel public mockery ! It was traumatising. I wasn’t even on Facebook a lot. There wasn’t even many pictures. It blew my mind but also my young mind wasn’t ready for that at all. I believe it contributed to issues I’m still dealing with today in therapy. It’s a wild jungle out here and it literally felt like a random attack from a resentful boar or something - came out alive but with broken limbs. So maybe this is just speculation and yes some kids and teenagers get bullied in real life too, but it doesn’t take a genius to confirm your suspicions that it can’t be healthy. We’re all addicted to our phones as it is and it’s become the norm to have it as extensions of our arms. Every day I try to spend less time on it. I feel like I can only free myself from it by consciously deciding not to have one. These days that’s so marginal ...!
The idea that mimesis, the desire to ape other people, drives culture was propounded by Girard. He was concerned it would lead to violence as people inevitably will find a “scapegoat” to blame for their inability to measure up (in their own estimation) to others. Pre-Internet, as Freddie points out, there was a much more limited set of people you could compare yourself to and thus much more limited dissatisfaction with one’s own circumstances. In the world of the Internet, anyone prone to mimesis is now comparing themselves to everyone in the world, so the dissatisfaction and urge to scapegoat someone are exponentially worse.