Today’s teenagers are more sheltered and less independent than previous generations, and the shifts correspond with the mainstreaming of smartphones around 2012. Instead of going out with friends and looking for every chance to get away from their parents, the post-Millennial generation is staying in and Snapchatting—and it’s making them less happy.
The statistics, as outlined by social psychologist Jean Twenge for The Atlantic, are alarming. Today’s twelfth graders spend less time out of the house without their parents than eighth graders did in 2009. Only 56% of high school seniors dated in 2015, compared to 85% for Gen Xers and Baby Boomers. The number of teens who spend daily time with friends dropped by 40% between 2000 and 2015.
Today’s teenagers are also working less than their predecessors. The employment effects of the Great Recession have faded, but only 55% of today’s high school seniors have jobs when school is in session, compared to 77% during the late 1970s. They’re driving less, and depending on parents for rides. They’re having less sex, and having it later.
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Of course, many parents might heave a sigh of relief that their kids aren’t out carousing, and some side-effects, like a drop in teen pregnancies, are positive. But teenagers’ isolation has a dire cost—rates of depression and suicide so high Twenge says members of Generation Z are “on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades.”
Twenge says the evidence linking the problem to smartphones “could not be clearer.” Surveys have found that spending more time on social media and other “screen” activities correlates strongly with lower levels of happiness, and higher feelings of loneliness, levels of depression, and risk of suicide. Twenge attributes much of the harm of social media to what the internet knows as “FOMO,” or fear of missing out on the fun everyone else seems to be having. Cyberbullying is also a major culprit.
The consequences for these kids, Twenge says, will be long-term. Adolescent depression is more likely to recur in adulthood, and social skills become harder to develop as we age.
Luckily, Twenge’s prescription is fairly modest. Some of the worst effects of electronic devices seem to be mitigated when they’re used less than two hours a day. Parents who enforce that moderate boundary might end up helping their kids immensely.