The Mindspace Podcast #5: Smartphones and Adolescent Well-Being with Jean Twenge


hi welcome to the Mindspace podcast I’m
Joe Flanders thanks for tuning in I got really lucky to have a chat with dr.
gene 20 on the podcast today Gene’s professor of psychology at San Diego
State University and her research focuses on generations characteristics
of generations and differences between generations she’s an author of more than
a hundred and forty publications and books on this topic including generation
me which is an exploration of Millennials and her most recent book
which we got into today is called ijen why today’s super connected kids are
growing up less rebellious more tolerant less happy and completely unprepared for
adulthood and of course this book introduces the world to the first
generation of adolescents to grow up with smartphones in their pockets you
can find lots of information about gene at gene twangy calm that’s je am twe
and ger i got to talking to her because she was invited to give a lecture in
montreal next week she was invited by Oh Matt’s and she’ll be speaking as part of
a Metz’s annual Betty and Bernard s Shapiro family lecture series the
lecture is free and open to the public and will be of interest to parents and
their children who want to better understand the effects of smartphones on
our families relationships and behavior the lecture is May 14th so Monday
evening and the doors open at 7 p.m. the lecture will actually start at 7:30 and
it’s at the char Zion congregation 5575 côte saint-luc Road in Montreal you can
register by going to omotte CA om et zga or you can call them at five one four
three four two zero zero zero zero just a quick shout out fro Matt’s because
they’re an important organization here in Montreal they’re a
charitable organization offering employment immigration school and social
services to help people fulfill their potential and secure the growth and
vitality of the Montreal community my conversation with Jean was somewhat
brief compared to some of the other episodes on mindspace podcast but it was
still very informative and thought-provoking I’m especially
interested in the impact of smartphones on well-being in general and performance
I’ve written about it and I’ve spoken in the media about it but genes work caught
my attention as a father of two little girls as you’ll hear she gives us
parents and mental health professionals a lot to reflect on when it comes to the
question of how to manage kids use of the internet and smartphones and this
whole technological revolution were right in the middle of I feel she has a
huge amount of credibility in this space she has a huge amount of like good rich
data to work with she’s a smart and careful scientist and has obviously
given this a lot of thought she also has a very accessible and memorable way of
speaking about these issues and that’s probably because she makes a lot of
appearances in in some very influential US media outlets including Time magazine
USA Today New York Times The Washington Post Good Morning America CBS this
morning Dateline NPR etc she’ll says a really
good TEDx talk which I will hopefully link to in the show notes in our
conversation we talked about her research and what she’s learned about
ijen we’ve talked about the really clear findings she’s picked up about the
mental health problems this generation is facing and why she thinks it truly is
associated with if not caused by their use of smartphones why smartphones are
different from other disruptive technologies that we’ve seen in previous
generations and what parents and professionals can
do about all these things and so here is my conversation with dr. James Lee okay I’m very pleased to have dr. Jean
Twenge on the podcast today she is the author of I gem why today’s super
connected kids are growing up less rebellious more tolerant less happy and
completely unprepared for adulthood Jean welcome thank you all right so maybe you
could start by telling us a little bit about the research you’ve been doing on
generations it sounds like you’ve been at it for quite a while and have quite a
bit of experience in this area yeah I started looking at generational
differences when I was a university undergraduate because I was trying to
understand my own generation Generation X and how we were different from those
who came before us and as my career continued time passed and I started to
look at Millennials and then I started to see patterns in the data suggesting
that after the Millennials there was a new generation on the scene born 1995
and later and I called them I gen say maybe you could explore a little bit
what you intended with that name so any i gen makes sense as a name for this
generation because they are the first to spend their entire adolescence with
smartphones so I gen is a little bit of a play on an iPad or an iPhone and among
teens according to some surveys three out of four of them have an iPhone not
just a smartphone but an iPhone well okay and I know that in your view that
has a big impact on their development and their mental health and stuff like
that maybe Before we jump into that you could tell us a little bit about what we
know about this generation and how they might differ from the Millennials and
Gen Xers and even baby boomers so I look at generations using these very large
nationally representative surveys of teens and young adults so
I keep an eye on the trends and in those data sets and then been doing a number
of projects on them when I started to notice a rather sudden change around
2011 or 2012 in the responses of teens especially around questions having to do
with how they’re spending their time and how they were feeling and these were
changes that were so sudden and so large they were very unusual because I have
been doing this for a long time I got used to seeing changes that were fairly
large but would take a decade or two to get there and then I started seeing
seeing me as much more sudden changes so for example more teens started to say
that they felt lonely and that they felt left out and more started to say that
they felt like they couldn’t do anything right or that their life wasn’t useful
and those last two are classic symptoms of depression so it became clear that
there was a generational break between the teens you know 2010 and before and
those about 2011 2012 and later and that something was going wrong in the lives
of teens that so many more were saying that they were lonely and depressed what
else do we know about this generation compared to the others or is that really
the main feature that you look at well that was the most sudden change but
there are many many other generational changes so the the book looks at 10
different trends across 10 different areas so there are also differences
based on political beliefs and on attitudes toward family and marriage
attitudes toward work and religion and fundamental shifts in how this
generation spends their time it’s kind of difficult to know where to start
there are so many differences all right just for the sake of clarity here would
you attribute all of those differences to
the the impact of smartphones and their connectivity or is that just one of the
one of the variables that you’re tracking well it depends on which trade
or attitude or behavior you’re looking at in some cases it seems clear that the
differences are due to rise the smartphone in other cases it’s more
likely that it’s part of a larger cultural trend or that there’s other
forces that are operating to create those differences okay
let’s dive into the DISA Mental Health question because I think that’s what I’m
most interested in and probably what our listeners are most interested in so some
fairly stark and clear changes or differences with earlier generations and
you seem to put again the sort of the role of the smartphone and their
connectivity really at the center of this and I know that you’re you treat
this issue of causality versus correlation with the high degree of
sensitivity in the book I’m just curious to know why is that so central in your
view to these mental health issues that you’re picking up on you mean why is the
smartphone so central yes yes so in seeing that big spike in loneliness and
depressive symptoms and by the way the same trend also shows up in clinical
level depression in self-harm so things like cutting or taking too many pills in
suicide rates in anxiety suicidal ideation I mean it’s a very very
consistent trend that around 2010 2011 2012 right around that same period in
many different surveys including behaviors as well as attitudes as well
those screening studies there was this sudden spike in mental health issues
there was also a decline in happiness and in life satisfaction and in self
esteem so this is a very very consistent pattern so that of course then begs the
question of why what happened around 2011 that could have
we caused this so it’s that period about 2011 to 2016 when most of these changes
were happening which is a pretty brief period of time it’s very unusual to see
changes that are that fast so this is data from the US although data from
other countries often shows the same pattern and that was a period of
economic improvement in the u.s. so there was a Great Recession but that
lasted from 2007 to 2009 with unemployment peaking in 2010 so that
period from 2011 to 2016 was the time when the economy was improving usually
when the economy improves what you’d expect is people be happier and less
depressed and in fact it was the opposite so it didn’t seem like economic
cycles were at the RHIB this other economic trends like income inequality
or changes in job market those have been going on for decades at least since the
80s didn’t show a sudden change in around 2011 so it doesn’t seem like
economic factors were to blame so then I had to start to consider what else could
possibly have caused this and there are it was tough at first I was struggling
to try to figure out why what what it could possibly be there were there
weren’t any other really cataclysmic political or other types of events that
could have explained it but then I had been working on another project using
these data sets and finding teens weren’t spending as much time hanging
out with each other in person so an in-person social interaction with each
other they just weren’t doing that as much and that trend kind of started
around 2000 but it really accelerated at the same time that depression and
Happiness were spiking run 2011 or so really kind of fell off a cliff the
amount of time that teens were spending with their friends face to face so that
brought me to realizing or why why were teens spending less time with each other
face to face because of the smartphone because they were spending more time
educating electronically so that seemed to bring it all together with the
realization that it was that fundamental shift in how teens interact with each
other socially toward electronic communication away from face-to-face
communication that could potentially be at the root of
this sudden change in their mental health yeah it certainly sounds
plausible to me although on face value why would online communication not be as
satisfying and fulfilling to kids as being together in person
well we we know from a bunch of studies that it’s just not that it is just
there’s many many studies on this but here’s just just one example there was a
true experiment done with college students and half of them interacting
with each other electronically and the other half face to face and that
electronic communication was not as fulfilling emotionally they didn’t feel
as emotionally close to the person as when they communicated face to face
which makes a lot of sense when you think about how our brains evolved to
need social interaction and the feedback that we get a lot of it it’s not just
the words it’s the expression on the other person’s face that you they’re
physically with someone you can touch them you can hear the tone of their
voice you can see the expression on their face your bare with them and
that’s what our brains seem to respond to electronic communication many times
is not in real-time you have to wait to hear back from the other person it’s
often just words or pictures you’re not there with the person face to face and
in real-time and it is a pale shadow of the fulfillment that we get in
interacting with each other so I mean you can kind of think about it
like food that seeing a friend face-to-face is like eating an apple a
whole food and natural food communicating with someone on snapchat
or Instagram is more like eating Apple Jacks it’s a food like product and it
may feel like food for an hour and then it isn’t very fulfilling in terms of
nutrition or in terms of your energy on a long-term basis I really like that
metaphor it makes a lot of sense to me I’m sure you get this question a lot
maybe a little bit of pushback from skeptics about this hypothesis that
you’re proposing but how is this different from other periods where a new
disruptive communication technology came into play so in the 60s and 70s I’m sure
people are freaking out about TV and I’m sure we can go back even further and
talk about when the telephone came on board what’s the big deal this time well
there’s some similarities in some differences to these previous
technological revolution so first let’s talk about the differences first the
smart phone is portable it goes with people everywhere they go so it is a
constant distraction and it can be brought into in-person social
interaction situations and distract from those and it is so constantly available
and so addictive at least some of argue that that might be why teens and many
adults are spending so much time with this technology so common sense media
for example looks at the amount of time teens spend with technology and their
most recent data suggests that it’s eight or nine hours a day of leisure
time that has teens have never watched TV that much so it’s a technology that
has really overtaken an enormous amount of leisure time so that’s one of the
things that makes it different there are some similarities though in that
let’s take television as an example television was another technological
revolution it happened more slowly it was in the house instead of outside of
it like smartphones but people you know you mentioned you know people being
worried about televisions impact on society in the 60s and 70s those worries
were not unfounded and I think that’s something that’s often ignored them
and that argument so as just as a couple of examples there’s a book called
Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam then which is about the breakdown in
community life and civic engagement and community groups and it’s like 800 page
or so book and his conclusion at the end of the book is these community groups
fell apart because people were watching television instead similarly when you
look at how people spend their time people who watch a lot of hours of TV
are also more unhappy and depressed than those who interact with other people
face to face so I would scratch my head a little bit when people to help people
said the same thing about TV and everything’s fine everything is not fine
it really did have a big impact on society and for the most part although
there are some positive certainly just like with smartphones not all the
effects were positive many of them were negatives right I wonder what your take
is on what I’m perceiving as a growing level of concern in the community at a
large not just with kids but this growing sense that smartphones are
addictive to everybody and in many ways they’re designed to be addictive based
on the business models of the people creating the hardware and the software I
know I just discovered recently that Google is launching a digital well-being
campaign to help people use their phones more with more wisdom let’s say are you
concerned about that yes and there’s been some debate over whether we should
call it addiction or not I think it doesn’t really matter whether you call
it addiction or overuse the problem is the same so hey we need more of these
types of initiatives and more ways for people to find smart ways of limiting
their device use because that’s where the data really points so there’s lots
of studies on both adults and teens and all of them seem to point to the same
conclusion that these technologies are not going away and they’re very useful
and thus people who let’s take teens for example who
dunh social media at all or don’t use electronic devices at all they’re
actually not particularly happy the happiest teens are those who use social
media or use electronic devices a little bit so an hour or so a day and then once
you get beyond two hours a day of use that’s when you start to see the links
to you unhappiness and depression and so on so I think that’s the real key is
limited use so these initiatives like what Google is
doing our first step in trying to get people to limit their use to use the
phone for what it’s good for and then put it down one of the specific things
that Google has is you can set a bedtime and then the screen will gray out to
remind you of it I would go a step further parents for example if they’re
having issues with their teens staying up late on the phone you can put an app
on that fund that’ll literally shut it down at bedtime and that is really
crucial because that’s something we haven’t talked about yet is the effect
of these devices on sleep I mean that has the potential to be the whole story
not even the whole explanation behind the mental health issues is that with
devices and funds kind of taking over our lives they they’re portable they go
into the bedroom and they keep people awake both because they’re
psychologically stimulating and because they’re physiologically stimulating
because the blue light from those devices shines into our eyes and tricks
our brains into thinking it’s still daytime and then we don’t produce the
melatonin that we need to fall asleep mm-hmm I’m actually really curious about
this hypothesis about the devices being addictive and I wonder what your take
would be on the hypothesis that a lot of what we’re seeing in terms of the impact
on mood is actually kind of withdrawal symptoms from a highly rewarding
experience so that it’s possible that that’s that that’s part of it um that’s
not what I’ve been able to look at in my research man I’ve been focusing more on
time displacement of spending so much time on devices that it displaces time
for more beneficial activities like face-to-face social interaction and
sleep but there are others who have taken a look at those areas with you
know that the there potentially addictive which is one reason why people
spend so much time on them plus then what happens when you put it down that
you just want to pick it back up again because of that dopamine loop in the
brain right this is an interesting opening for something I wanted to ask
you about I became aware of some research saying that the impact of like
computer and smartphone use on adolescents mood is actually less than
something like skipping breakfast or losing sleep and so you sort of pointed
at this earlier that the smart the impact of smartphone use might be
indirect and might be happening through sleep I wonder how you process that data
yeah I have read that before as well and I found that a strange analogy because
we’re talking about you know missing a meal or you know losing sleep those are
pretty important and pretty impactful things in terms of physiology so it’s
not all that surprising that those would have a large effect and perhaps larger
than the direct effect of spending time on electronic devices I don’t think
that’s particularly shocking or newsworthy no matter that indirect
effect I I think is where we need to spend at least some of our attention
that and we know this from lots of research that on spending a lot of time
on electronic devices particularly the time before bed interferes with sleep
and sleep deprivation and lack of good quality sleep is a huge risk factor for
mental health issues as well as compromising physical health as well so
here’s here’s one way to think about this you know the folks who say well you
know these other effects are bigger or you know oh the effects are small well
doubling of Debye unhappiness between you know between those who spend a
little bit of time online and those who spend a lot I don’t like that small but
okay let’s just for the sake of argument play devil’s advocate and say okay let’s
say that spending time on devices is a wash let’s just call it a neutral we’re
gonna call the debate a draw even if we do that then if those devices are
crowding out the time people used to spend sleeping and seeing their friends
face-to-face the effects could be exactly the same okay
I’m curious also to ask you about some of the data that you discuss and I’ve
seen elsewhere about kids being better behaved in a way so they’re using less
drugs and alcohol than they used to they’re less physically violent they’re
having sex less or later and again there are other explanations for this
including like maybe people are spending or kids there’s many more time with
closer families or they’re highly invested or committed to their academic
work do you think that this the smartphone use thing is playing out in
this area as well so characterizing those trends as teens being better
behaved may have some truth to it but misses the big picture the big picture
is that teens are growing up more slowly they’re eventually going to drink
alcohol and have sex they’re just doing it later so this is part of a much
larger cultural story of what’s called a slow life strategy that parents these
days we have fewer children and we nurture them more carefully and this
tends to happen in times and places where we live longer and expect
education to take longer so for example by the end of grade 12 when students are
18 or almost 18 i gen students compared to previous generations are less likely
to have their drivers license to work at a paid job to go out without their
parents to drink alcohol to house and to date those are all activities
that adults do and children don’t so they in the past been considered
milestones of adolescents so if you and you look at that lesson you say well you
know some of those are really good of course but what about driving and what
about having a paid job what about going out without your parents are those good
or bad they’re neither one and so if you just see things as good and bad you’re
gonna miss that big picture when the real story is that teens are simply
taking longer to grow up and that has advantages and disadvantages so I think
the characterization of better-behaved misses that large picture it is true
that they’re also less likely to physically fight with each other this is
a generation very very concerned with safety physical safety as well as
emotional safety and that has a huge number of positives it has some
downsides too if we have a generation who’s unwilling to take risks that might
be smart risks to take on culture change is a trade-off and it’s a real trap to
just see things as as good or bad right yeah thank you for that clarification
think a lot of what you’re talking about can cause significant concern for
parents and even for adolescents I have two little kids and I see the incredible
poll that these devices have I was somewhat aware of the impact but getting
into your stuff made me you know really quite concerned I wonder what you have
to say to parents in terms of just reassuring them you know reassuring
their anxieties about where this is all going and what practical advice you
might have for somebody like me so I think one thing to keep in mind this is
actually a good news story a lot of the things that influence mental health
whether it’s children or adults are autumn our control we can’t help the
genes who are born with we can’t help the bad things that some of the bad
things that happen to us we’re not gonna solve poverty overnight
unfortunately but we have control over how we spend our leisure time and as
parents we have some control and influencing how our especially our
younger children but also how our teens spend their leisure time so we can try
to place an emphasis on the activities that are beneficial for mental health
and happiness like getting together with friends and
family face-to-face like getting enough sleep going out and getting exercise
watching a sunset being present in the moment as opposed to things that are not
particularly beneficial like spending hours and hours on social media or sitting and watching TV for a long time
we can use these technologies for what they’re good for smartphones are a
wonderful technology they’re very convenient they can save us a lot of
time it can help keep us and our kids safe but then we have to put them down
and go live our lives so the way I’ve sometimes but it is this
way that smartphones should be a tool that we use and not a tool that uses us
right I really love the way you put that I think it’s a really powerful and
memorable way to to keep a perspective on this whole issue so thank you so much
for that I am mindful of the time and I know you’ve got a lot going on today so
maybe I’ll just leave you with one final question if there’s anything else you’d
like to say on this issue before we break um I think that’s it I think we’ve
covered a lot okay super so thanks again for taking the time really excited to
get this out to our listeners and I’m looking forward to seeing you in
Montreal next week all right thank you all right take care you too

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