The Thistle - An E-Newsletter of Scotch College, Perth, Western Australia

Balance and smartphones

Please let me start by saying that I am not in the habit of vilifying technology. Quite the opposite; I am a big proponent of the benefits it can supply to learning and communication. There is, however, a growing body of evidence that we, as a community, need to be very mindful of. I recently read an article by Jean Twenge, psychology professor at San Diego University, on the effect of smartphones. The article was somewhat dramatically entitled "Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?" and was adapted from a forthcoming book she is writing. The article, based on her work in the United States, posits that post-Millennials (children born after the year 2000) are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they are some significant challenges ahead in regards to mental health and well-being.

Twenge's work on generational difference stretches over her 25 years as a psychologist. In the article, she identifies that the characteristics which come to define a generation have, historically, gradually appeared. However, this may no longer be the case with post-Millennials or the iGen as she calls them. Trend lines from her research into the factors affecting generations were described as "modest hills and valleys", until her research into post-Millennials or iGens. In 2012, she noticed "abrupt" shifts in teen behaviour and emotional states. So, what happened in 2012 to cause this shift? Twenge attributes this to the moment that the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone passed 50 percent.

Twenge's research elucidates a reduction in; iGen teens hanging out with friends, their haste to gain their driver's license, reduced rates of dating and contrasts this against increases in feelings of loneliness and getting enough sleep. While she cannot prove causation between impacts on well-being, smartphone use and social media, there is a body of evidence accumulating.

So, what are some of the heath related issues according to Twenge?

  1. Sleep deprivation linked to myriad issues, including compromised thinking and reasoning, susceptibility to illness, weight gain, and high blood pressure. It also affects mood: People who do not sleep enough are prone to depression and anxiety. Smartphones could be causing lack of sleep, which leads to depression, or the phones could be causing depression, which leads to lack of sleep. Or some other factor could be causing both depression and sleep deprivation to rise. But the smartphone, its blue light glowing in the dark, is likely playing a nefarious role.
  2. Poorly used leisure and family time. In an information economy that rewards higher education more than early work history, parents may be inclined to encourage their kids to stay home and study rather than to get a part-time job. Teens, in turn, seem to be content with this homebody arrangement - not because they are so studious, but because their social life is lived on their phone. They do not need to leave home to spend time with their friends. The time that older students 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. Further to this, one of the ironies of iGen life is that despite spending far more time under the same roof as their parents, today's teens can hardly be said to be closer to their mothers and fathers than their predecessors were.
  3. The contradiction of social media. Social-networking sites like Facebook promise to connect us to friends. But the portrait of iGen teens emerging from the data is one of a lonely, dislocated generation. Teens who visit social-networking sites every day but see their friends in person less frequently are the most likely to agree with the statements "A lot of times I feel lonely," "I often feel left out of things," and "I often wish I had more good friends." This doesn't always mean that, on an individual level, kids who spend more time online are lonelier than kids who spend less time online. Teens who spend more time on social media also spend more time with their friends in person, on average - highly social teens are more social in both venues and less social teens are less so. But at the generational level, when teens spend more time on smartphones and less time on in-person social interactions, loneliness is more common.

So, what about balance?

We in Australia cannot simply apply a study carried out in the United States to our children, however, there are certainly similarities in our cultures. Causation between smartphone use and anxiety and depression is not absolute. So, like so many things in life it is about balance. Monitoring the use of our children's smartphone use both here at school and at home is worthy of consideration. We believe that the updating of our mobile phone policy has had a beneficial effect here at school. Some other considerations may be: Does the mobile device sleep in your child's bedroom or out on the kitchen bench recharging overnight? Do you have a rule that the phones are not used in the car while travelling to school or out and about, so conversations can take place? Twenge suggests the correlations between depression and smartphone use are strong enough to suggest that more parents should be telling their kids to put down their phone. As the technology writer Nick Bilton has reported, it is a policy some Silicon Valley executives follow. Even Steve Jobs limited his kids' use of the devices he brought into the world.

Mr Dean Shadgett
Head of Senior School