If you have children who are growing up with a cell phone in their hands, you’ve seen the behavior.
Your college student prefers exchanging a blizzard of texts on Snapchat over talking with family members around the dinner table, while the high schooler scrolls endlessly through Instagram feeds long after everyone else is asleep.
The love affair young people have with their smartphones is a hallmark of the iGen — as those born in the mid-1990s or later are known — and it’s a concern for those who believe the devices might be partly responsible for the growing incidence of major depression and suicide among that age group.
San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge, PhD, who wrote a book about the iGen label she coined and specializes in the study of generational differences, says the possible nexus between digital media and depression boils down to “just the pure amount of time that teens spend online.”
The effects of that prolonged exposure, she thinks, are both social and physical.
“They spend less time sleeping and less time seeing friends in person,” Twenge told Healthline.
A recently published study she co-authored in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology reports a significant rise in the incidence of major depression among 12 to 25-year-olds in the United States.
The researchers say the trend started about seven years ago and they raised the possibility of a connection to the burgeoning number of people who own a smartphone.
Twenge and her team analyzed information from nearly 612,000 adolescents and adults who participated in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which has provided an annual snapshot of tobacco, alcohol, and other drug use as well as data on mental health among ages 12 and up since 1971.
The team looked for trends in mood disorders and behavior related to suicide — thoughts, plans, attempts, and the act itself — from 2005 through 2017, the latest year for which data is available.
Although previous studies have reported an uptick in adolescent depression and suicide over much of the past decade, Twenge wanted to know if the trend was affecting all ages or just young people.
Researchers hypothesized that the growing incidence of serious depression and related deaths primarily is occurring within a particular age group rather than being a function of growing older or a phenomenon that people of all ages are experiencing.
What they found supported their conjecture.
The number of survey participants reporting major depression in the past year increased among those in the preteen-to-mid-20s group, whereas the incidence stayed the same or declined among people 26 and above.
More specifically, the incidence of major depression that 12 to 17-year-olds had experienced over the previous year increased 52 percent from 2005 to 2017.
Among ages 18 to 25, the prevalence rose by 63 percent from 2009 to 2017.
And the rate of those same young adults contemplating suicide or acting on it went up 71 percent from 2008 to 2017.
Researchers discounted the idea that finances could be driving the change, noting that unemployment in the United States was dropping at the same time mood disorders were becoming more common.
In the same vein, other studies show that young people aren’t using more drugs and alcohol, so substance use isn’t a likely explanation, according to the researchers’ report.
But the ever-increasing popularity of electronic devices and digital media could be at least partly to blame, the study said.
The researchers noted that smartphones became dominant around the same time that the incidence of adolescent depression surged.
By fall 2012, 66 percent of young adults owned one of these mini-computers and more Americans overall had a smartphone than a traditional mobile device, according to the Pew Research Center.
Other research has shown a connection between using a smartphone at bedtime and inadequate sleep — a typical characteristic of depression.
Among other things, mobile phone screens emit a type of light that tricks the brain into thinking it’s morning.
Studies have also found a link between the amount of face-to-face social interaction people have and how happy they are.
Theresa Nguyen, vice president of policy and programs of the advocacy organization Mental Health America, offers some theories why.
Digital natives — young people who have been around computers all their lives — are so accustomed to communicating via texting that having leisurely conversations face-to-face or even on the phone feels awkward, she told Healthline.
As they prepare to enter college and the workforce, they become anxious, realizing they’re not prepared for the real world where verbal communication is still the primary way people relate to each other, Nguyen said.
As a gateway to social media, smartphones not only are a tool for cyberbullying but can lead to distorted thinking, she added.
“Young people look at what other people post and for them that’s reality, when we know that’s a polished (version),” Nguyen said.
If a kid is already feeling depressed, seeing online reminders that they aren’t a part of the fun only intensifies the feeling of isolation, she said.
Conversely, social media can create a false sense of connection with others when the reality is that the people following someone’s account aren’t necessarily personal friends — a key component of mental health, said Laura Greenstein, communications manager for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
And even when teens or young adults are hanging out with friends, they worry about having to keep up appearances with their followers on social media by documenting the experience — thereby becoming more focused on capturing the perfect photo than enjoying themselves, she told Healthline.
“People will be taken out of the present moment to get that documentation for social media later and that can increase anxiety,” Greenstein said.
In addition, there’s an addictive quality to social media platforms that allow audiences to show their approval of a post by clicking on an icon, she said.
The pleasure an individual experiences seeing others like something they’ve shared online triggers the brain to release dopamine, a chemical associated with the desire to repeat the behavior and the reason people stay glued to their phone after posting something.
For parents wondering what they can do to protect their child from the potential risks of excessive smartphone use, experts offer these suggestions:
- Put the phone away one hour before going to bed.
- Limit the amount of leisure time spent in front of a screen to two hours per day (this doesn’t include time spent on a computer doing homework).
- Prohibit cell phones at dinner. It’s a way to enforce good quality time together.
- Set your child’s phone up with one of the apps that track and control how much time they are on it.
- Make time for face-to-face interaction.
Nguyen recommends parents cultivate the habit of scheduling one-on-one dates with each of their children to have meaningful conversations without the distraction of a cell phone around.
Working parents might find stress and fatigue make it difficult to carve out the time, but establishing a rapport that goes deeper than superficial questions and one-word answers is key to finding out how your child is feeling about life, she said.
“If we don’t do this… the internet is parenting our children,” Nguyen said.