More teens and young adults, especially girls and young women, report depression and anxiety, compared to comparable numbers from the mid-2000s. Suicides have also increased during this time period, most notably among girls aged 10 to 14 years.
These trends are at the heart of the scientific controversy.
One hypothesis that has gained a lot of grip is that almost every teenager using a smartphone these days, the digital media has to bear some of the blame for the deterioration mental health.
But some researchers argue that this theory is not well supported by existing evidence and that it repeats the "moral panic" argument made many times in the past for video games, rap texts, television and even radio, in its early days.
To understand both sides of the debate, I spoke in detail with three researchers: one who claims that the use of technology by teens is a big problem, who thinks the danger is exaggerated and an expert in research methodology who suggests a connection may not be so simple.
Very worried about smartphones
Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, may be the researcher most concerned with the idea that smartphones are dangerous for teenagers. She is the author of iGen, whose 27-word subtitle states her thesis: Why do today's super-connected children grow less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy – and completely unprepared for Adulthood – and what it means to others .
"At the beginning, when I saw these trends in loneliness and distress and depression that began to develop around 2011 or 2012, I really had no idea what could possibly cause it. It was a real mystery," she told NPR. . She said at the time that she had become aware of the Pew survey, which showed that 2012 was the first year that most mobile phone owners switched to smartphones.
Not only do these two trend lines seem to coincide in time, but Twenge also notes that young people who report spending the most time on smartphones – five to seven hours a day – are twice as likely to report depression than those who use their phones for one to two hours a day.
Twenge does not claim to have proven that smartphones cause depression. The datasets he works with – essentially large studies – do not allow this.
"It is impossible to do random controlled trials of generations because you cannot randomly assign people to be born at different times. So we cannot prove causation given this limitation," she explains . "So we have to keep up with the data we have – which obviously won't be a real experiment – but it adds a lot of evidence pointing to technology that probably plays a role in this increase in mental health issues."
Evidence – with warnings
Given that all teens use the media, I asked Twenge, why would a worsening trend in mental health be more pronounced for girls than for boys?
She responded with one possible explanation: The social media that girls tend to spend more time with may be the culprits.
"Social media invites comparison," Twenge says. "This is not real-time. It invites concern about the likes and replies you will receive."
Given that adults use the media even more than teenagers, why is this trend increasing among teenagers? Twenge says their brains are still vulnerable and developing. Plus, they didn't have as much time to make social connections in real life as the elderly, so they are even more dependent on their social screening phones.
Twenge even thinks that the presence of smartphones can help explain the increase in the suicide rate among the youngest girls. "They have more access to information online – potentially harmful information about how to harm yourself."
My last question to Twenge: She personally made a very similar argument to young people before smartphones existed. Previously, she published a book, Generation Me, that looked at similar datasets and labeled the millennial generation as "unhappy", "narcissistic" and "anxious." This book was published in 2006; iPhone was introduced in 2007. Does it put old wine in new bottles?
Twenge says that compared to now, mental health trends are even more negative about what she calls iGen and in retrospect "more than a mixed bag" for millennia.
Not worth the time
Parents are concerned. Detox programs have emerged to treat addiction to teens. But some researchers are skeptical of the hypothesis that smartphones are causing problems.
One team publishes three documents analyzing the same data Twenge looks at – over 350,000 participants in three national surveys in the US and the UK.
Amy Orben, the lead author of every work and psychologist at Oxford University, says the team has found that the real negative relationship between mental health and the use of technology by teens is small.
"Using technology for teens can only explain less than 1% of the variations in well-being," Orben says. "It's so small that it goes beyond whether a teenager wears glasses at school," or rides a wheel, or eating potatoes – all comparisons made by Orben and her co-author, Oxford Andrew K. Prizibilsky.
How can this be? Well, smartphone use is almost ubiquitous among teens today, with only a small minority reporting mental health issues So, knowing that a teenager used and a smartphone, even for many hours a day, does not reliably predict that a teenager will be depressed, which tells you far, far less than factors such as genetics or the presence of childhood trauma, for example.
Orben examines the history of people making horrific claims to young people and new forms of media. For example, she says, "In the 1940s, people were already talking about 'radio addiction.'" One study found that fully 57% of children aged 6 under 16 are seriously "addicted to radio programs and are she is needed as an alcoholic who drinks. ""
She believes that negative mental health trends can be explained by a wide variety of factors: economic anxiety or political upheaval, to mention two. And, she adds, there is a chance that young people today might just be more open to research when asked about mental health challenges. "Many teenagers are much better off saying they are wrong." Ironically, this openness can actually be due in part to social media.
Twenge replies that an upcoming document she is currently reviewing will challenge the findings of Orben's team. She says that just because the impact of using smartphones seems small, it does not mean that it is insignificant, moreover that unlike genetics, it can be controllable.
As a sort of referee on this debate, I called Catherine Kees, an epidemiologist at the Columbia University School of Public Health. Her focus is on explaining population trends, especially in adolescents' mental health.
She is also a critic of Twenge's work, saying she tends to "distort data" by increasing screen usage to exclude other factors in the lives of teens.
And, she says, there are many numbers that do not necessarily coincide with Twenge's theory. The pursuit of suicide began in 1999. The decline in the mental health of teenagers began in 2005. The iPhone was launched in 2007 and has not been available to most teens for several years.
Not all news is bad when it comes to teens, For example, the high school graduation rate is rising. Drug and alcohol use is decreasing, as are car accidents and pregnancy in teens.
The mental health of adolescents is not in freefall, says Keys, but it seems to have declined after a decline in 2012.
We do not see the same negative trends in every country, even in those where teens are just as glued to their screens as they are in the United States.
There is no linear relationship between screen use and mental health. In most studies, teens who use their phones for up to two hours a day look healthier than those who don't use them at all. This does not account for other reasons for using technology, such as homework or listening to music.
In the case of heavy users, says Keys, the use of smartphones may be a symptom rather than a cause of mental health problems. Or there may be a third variable that drives both – such as lack of parental support or health problems.
The explanation that Keys finds most compelling is that there is a "two-way" connection between teens, screens, and mental health. In other words, as stated in this paper by Candice Odgers in Nature, teens who are already struggling may be more attracted to screens and more likely to form unhealthy media relations, e.g. by seeking information on self-harm or cyberbullying. The time they spend online can, in turn, make them feel worse.
Twenge agrees with the general idea that "social media invites comparisons and anxiety."
What should a parent do?
Although their conclusions are different, no researcher I spoke with thought it was a great idea to allow teens to run through TikTok or play Fortnite all day and night.
Twenge, Orben, and Keyes support similar rules for healthy strength by making sure teens don't have phones in their bedrooms late at night and trying to ensure that their lives are balanced with outdoor exercise, school, and time for exercise face with friends and family.
So why should the average parent worry about this scientific dispute? Because, says Kees, when parents just demonize phones, "there is less communication channel" about what teens are getting online. The parent's ability to mentor or support the positive use of the media is replaced by "daily confrontation". Well-meaning parents, mistakenly believing that the phone is as risky as a cigarette or beer, can actually make their children's lives difficult by fighting with them for it.