The Atlantic recently published a major feature article by big-name author and social science researcher Jean Twenge exploring the effects of young people’s constant phone and computer use. In short, her findings are ominous. Here’s one factoid from a long-running national teen study: “Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy. There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness. ”
Twenge says mental illiness and antisocial behaviors have mounted dramatically since cell phone use surpassed 50 percent, and are not just correlated, but also causally linked. Antidepressant use and suicides have spiked in the last decade. And it’s not just a one-time thing, because people who fall into depression once are more likely to do so again. Therefore, screen-induced depression is likely to have a lifelong effect on young people’s mental health and happiness.
eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-graders in the 2010s actually spend less time on homework than Gen X teens did in the early 1990s. (High-school seniors headed for four-year colleges spend about the same amount of time on homework as their predecessors did.) The time that seniors spend on activities such as student clubs and sports and exercise has changed little in recent years. Combined with the decline in working for pay, this means iGen teens have more leisure time than Gen X teens did, not less.
So what are they doing with all that time? They are on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed.
This is one side of the research on the effects of tech use. Another, particularly school related, are burgeoning findings that computer and tablet use in schools decreases students’ attention span — which is obviously necessary for all learning — increases their aggression, and does not improve learning (despite claims to the contrary). While 1:1 programs that hand each school child a screen seem flashy and cutting-edge, their main benefits seem to be in PR while their main disadvantages appear to be to children and families.
Twenge adds more disadvantages to frequent screen use and personal cell phones for young people:
What’s at stake isn’t just how kids experience adolescence. The constant presence of smartphones is likely to affect them well into adulthood. Among people who suffer an episode of depression, at least half become depressed again later in life. Adolescence is a key time for developing social skills; as teens spend less time with their friends face-to-face, they have fewer opportunities to practice them. In the next decade, we may see more adults who know just the right emoji for a situation, but not the right facial expression.
This research is part of the reason Redeemer Classical is a low-tech, high-relationship environment. Parents are paying us to teach at a deeply substantive professional level that is difficult to replicate in any other setting, and anyone can pull out a screen and put on a video. We do not allow students to use cell phones during the school day, and encourage students to leave them at home. Part of the job of a school is to help students grow in their social and emotional skills, and research finds that screens impede those goals. We are a community in relationship with each other, not an assortment of lone individuals forced into the same building for a set number of hours who seek ways to avoid each other’s company.
This does not mean we are anti-technology. Upper-level students will be exposed to challenging engineering study, and we anticipate offering summer code camps. We see technology as a tool that is good for some things but terrible for others. Especially when children’s brains are most plastic, we want their interactions to primarily be with humans who love them and great ideas that feed their minds and souls. This is what humans need most. Tech can be fine, and even fun and rewarding, but it’s secondary. It can wait.