Culture Clips: An Expert Asks, ‘Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?’

Culture clips and smartphones

How are the combined influences of smartphones and social media shaping the lives of children growing up today? In her new article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” in The Atlantic, author and psychologist Jean M. Twenge (Generation Me, iGen) argues that these technological advancements are having a revolutionary—and mostly negative—impact on young people today.

Twenge’s analysis examines how smartphone use correlates with rising teen suicide rates, mental health, sleep deprivation and general well-being. Regarding the latter, Twenge says data from the annual Monitoring the Future survey is unequivocal:

The survey asks teens how happy they are and also how much of their leisure time they spend on various activities, including nonscreen activities such as in-person social interaction and exercise, and, in recent years, screen activities such as using social media, texting, and browsing the web. The results could not be clearer: 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.

She adds, “If you were going to give advice for a happy adolescence based on this survey, it would be straightforward: Put down the phone, turn off the laptop, and do something—anything—that does not involve a screen.”

Twenge’s stern assessment has prompted a raft of responses. Writing for JSTOR Daily, Alexandra Samuel suggests parents need to look in the mirror when it comes to their own tech habits. She also says that instead of focusing on “screen time,” parents must become “digital mentors”: “Mentoring your kids means letting go of a one-size-fits-all approach to kids’ tech use, and thinking instead about which specific online activities are enriching (or impoverishing) for your specific child. Mentoring means talking regularly with your kids about how they can use the Internet responsibly and joyfully, instead of slamming on the brakes.”

But others, such as Psychology Today contributor Sarah Rose Cavanagh, Ph.D., question Twenge’s methodology.

Meanwhile, England’s Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, is speaking out on this issue as well. In an interview with the U.K.’s The Guardian, she said parents need to think of social media usage the same way we think about junk food: “None of us as parents would want our children to eat junk food all the time—double cheeseburger, chips, every day, every meal. For those same reasons we shouldn’t want our children to do the same with their online time.”

Elsewhere this week, writer/director/producer Judd Apatow talked with Vulture about why he doesn’t think conservatives make engaging entertainment.  “I know who I am as a storyteller: I want to feel hope about people’s abilities to incrementally learn. This is related to the reason why you don’t see movies and television about Republican and conservative ideas—because Republicans are trying to present themselves as correct, as clean … . And that’s why there’s no incredible, hysterically funny show about conservatives, because they’re too concerned about trying to present themselves as correct. They’re all going, I’m not neurotic. I’m not a disaster in any way. They don’t admit how lost they are. There’s something dishonest to me about that; it’s living a lie.”

Television reunions and reboots, meanwhile, seem to be everywhere these days—often relaunching shows that were popular in the 1980s or 1990s, including Will & Grace, The X-Files, Twin Peaks and Fuller House. But those hoping for a Friends reunion of any kind shouldn’t hold their breath, according to actor Matt LeBlanc, who played the lovable doofus Joey Tribbiani on that NBC series. LeBlanc said in an interview with The Daily Beast, “What story are we telling? Those characters have all gone their separate ways, they’ve all grown up. … That show was about a finite period in people’s lives, after school and before you get married. That time where your friends are your support system. And once that time’s over, that time’s over.”

The NFL’s concussion headache got a lot worse last week, too. Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that 110 of 111 players studied showed evidence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Writing for Sports Illustrated, Charles P. Pierce said, “The person with CTE is not the same person he was without it. An individual disappears into the disease. Someone else emerges—angry, frightened, impulsive, lost in a deep and infernal fog.”

Given the growing scientific evidence showing that football causes brain damage, more and more people are asking questions about the basic morality of the game, with the doctor whose work inspired the film Concussion saying that allowing children to play the game is tantamount to child abuse. “Someday there will be a district attorney who will prosecute for child abuse [on the football field], and it will succeed,” said Dr. Bennet Omalu, speaking at the New York Press Club.

Finally this week, the Alamo Drafthouse has issued an apology for women-only screenings of the film Wonder Woman, admitting that they were actually illegal (at least according to anti-discrimination laws on the books in Austin, Texas, where one of those screenings was held).

Who wrote this?

Adam R. Holz is a senior associate editor for Plugged In. He also writes for Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse magazine and has been a Boundless contributor. In his free time (which there is sometimes precious little of) Adam enjoys playing guitar and constructing LEGO kits with his son. Adam and his wife, Jennifer, are the proud parents, in fact, of three children, one boy and two girls.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Justice M. More than 1 year ago

I'd be curious to know the exact, scientific reasons screentime can cause unhappiness. Have researchers identified the specific elements of digital media usage/consumption that have negative impact? If this is done, it will become easier to differentiate between types of screentime and determine whether it's the content or the medium that does the most harm.

Inkfeather1 . More than 1 year ago
A correlation does not prove a causation so there's no indication that screen time is even the cause of this. Another interesting correlation is that between exercise/activity and happiness. Maybe it's the fact that people are spending too much time sitting to play video games and watch tv shows that is causing the unhappiness, and not the devices themselves. You have to be careful with correlations. They are a great starting point to form a hypothesis to test further, but they aren't a clear answer of what causes something.
Justice M. More than 1 year ago

I know it hasn't been proved that screentime is a cause, but since that’s the connection researchers are drawing, I was asking whether they’ve gone deeper based on that hypothesis. It may be that, once they look into it, they will find that they were barking up the wrong tree to begin with.


I’m inclined to think screentime can be positive in small doses, but generally has a negative effect the longer one spends on it. I’m just speaking from my own experience and how I feel after various amounts and types of screentime…not scientific evidence, but something for me to consider. But you're right that being sedentary probably has someting to do with feeling sad; research is fairly conclusive that exercise improves all-around health.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Have video games destroyed a generation? How about computers? Television? The problem is with how much one uses the technology and what for. Not the technology itself.

 I don't have a smartphone right now. If you don't really call or text people it's not a  necessity if you have a tablet or access to a computer.
bobed More than 1 year ago
I'm not one to spread doom and gloom about screen use. That being said, my kids know they can have a cell phone when they can pay for it. Otherwise it's an expensive waste of money for me. My oldest is now 17 and pays for her own. As for screens, my kids share one tablet and that's about it. I don't limit their time; they tend to do that on their own.
Skulatikus More than 1 year ago
I'm aware that this phrase is getting tired at this point, but correlation does not imply causation. Twenge's data doesn't by any means prove that "screen activities" cause unhappiness. It could just as easily indicate that unhappiness drives people to use their digital devices more. Alternatively, it could be that the two are symptoms of a common source. You need more than just statistics to "prove" anything like that.

To use a real world example (paraphrased from Wikipedia,) one might as well say that since there is a link between the speed at which windmills rotate and the speed of the wind, windmills must control the wind. Alternatively, it's like saying that medicine causes illness because most of the people who take medicine are ill in some way.

Now, I'm not saying that the conclusions about digital devices and unhappiness are necessarily incorrect. They may indeed be accurate, though my personal experience inclines me to believe that the matter is a lot more complicated than that. I'm just saying that the data mentioned above is thoroughly insufficient evidence.
Inkfeather1 . More than 1 year ago
You are completely correct, none of this means that spending time on digital devices causes unhappiness. My hypothesis would be that it's because most people are using their devices for unhealthy activities that is causing the issues and not something the devices themselves are doing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Totally. I do digital art, and I'm happier than I have ever been because I can create great, dynamic stuff on the computer. Yeah I get off and do pencil and comic stuff too. But then I get unhappy when I read something that makes me feel bad or something on the internet. It's not the screen. It's what you put in the screen. 
Inkfeather1 . More than 1 year ago
I'm a digital artist as well :) It's very relaxing. Do you happen to be on DeviantArt?