Editorial: Are smartphones destroying childhood? It’s complicated.


The Washington Post

In the 21st century, American life is lived shoulders hunched, head down, eyes glued to a smartphone screen. All right, that’s an exaggeration — but not a huge one. Nine in 10 Americans own one of these devices; among teens, nearly 1 in 5 say they use social media “ almost constantly.”

What data also show is that the explosion of cellphone use has coincided with a mental health crisis among youths, who have been dubbed “ The Anxious Generation ” in the title of a new book by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Forty-two percent of high school students in a 2021 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. Eighteen percent said they had made a suicide plan in the past year. Teenage girls especially are at risk.

This crisis has to be addressed, which means the precise link between cellphone use and mental distress has to be understood.

Haidt and others have argued, plausibly, that the connection is one of cause, not mere correlation. During critical developmental stages, kids need exposure to a broad range of experiences, including some risky ones. But between helicopter parenting and the allure of endless screen time, they’re staying inside on Instagram and TikTok instead. In this view, phones are “experience blockers,” which prevent kids from having the interactions — fighting and then peacemaking, for instance, or plain old problem-solving — that build maturity and resiliency. Whereas online social interaction can be faceless, fleeting or both, face-to-face conversation teaches social cues and in-person encounters can lead to sustained relationships.

There is a wrinkle, however. The science on all of this is less than certain. For every study that substantiates a causal link between the mental health crisis and cellphone usage, there’s another study that does not. Analyses of the very same data sets that some academics have interpreted as showing phones are at fault for teens’ and tweens’ struggles have yielded conflicting results. Social media explains only tiny amounts of the variation in depressive symptoms among teenagers — with digital technology use, in one finding, producing less of an effect on mental health than eating potatoes.

Perhaps the most noteworthy conclusion, reached in a review of 37 studies published in an American Psychological Association journal, is about the state of the research itself: Basically, it’s poor. This is partly because of the difficulty of coming up with a control group; no social scientist can muster a collection of kids born in the 2000s who did not use smartphones, to compare with their device-addled peers. And it is partly because the social media companies do not publish detailed data that could be key to more rigorous analysis.

Another flaw, well described by Pete Etchells in his book “ Unlocked: The Real Science of Screen Time,” could well be that the questions we’re asking are simply too broad — because neither “social media” nor “mental health” mean just one thing. Doomscrolling through threads on X is different from a prolonged one-on-one interaction via direct message; logging on after school is different from logging on during school; four hours a day is different from one hour a day; a well-adjusted teen might react differently to a steady stream of curated bikini photos than a teen already struggling with body-image issues. Research also points to the possibility that social media’s impact is most profound during certain developmental “windows of sensitivity.”

There is room, then, for progress. Instead of general questions such as “Is screen time causing a mental health crisis for kids?,” researchers could focus on specific ones such as “What kind of screen time are we talking about? What kind of mental health? What kind of kids?”

All of the above gets at what we don’t yet know about social media. But it’s also worth remembering what we do know. Outdoor play is good for kids. Spending time with family is good for kids. So are paying attention in school and getting enough sleep. And there’s no doubt that phones get in the way of at least some of these healthful habits. The average daily screen time per young person continues to rise, but each day still contains 24 hours. This effect — call it displacement, or substitution, or opportunity cost — deserves consideration, even if there’s nothing inherently harmful happening on the screens that are taking up so many hours and dominating so much attention.

A positive vision for what a healthy childhood looks like is just as important as a negative vision of the technology-related habits to avoid. For teachers, parents and legislators concerned by the very real mental health crisis engulfing the country’s young people, articulating such a vision might be the best place to start.