Smartphones & Teens: Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?

By Alex Chediak Published on August 10, 2017

We’ve heard a lot about kids and screen time. But how are electronic devices changing the way teens socialize? The answers are a bit frightening, according to Jean Twenge’s forthcoming book, for which a lengthy excerpt is available.

Twenge has been studying generational differences for the past 25 years. She’s found that changes are seldom abrupt. Instead, “beliefs and behaviors that were already rising simply continue to do so.” But an abrupt change occurred in 2012. That’s the first year in which most Americans owned a smartphone. “The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives,” Twenge writes, “from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health.” And it’s universal — all teens regardless of gender, race or socioeconomic class.

Physically Safe

Teens today — whom Twenge labels as “iGen” — are physically safer. They’re less likely to get into a car accident because fewer of them are driving. They’re less likely to get drunk because fewer of them are drinking. They don’t date as much, and they’re less sexually active. This surprised me, in a good way: “The average teen now has had sex for the first time by the spring of 11th grade, a full year later than the average Gen Xer.” The teen birth rate hit an all-time low in 2016.

So if that’s the good news, what’s the bad news? They’re homebodies who are less comfortable talking to real people in the real world. They aren’t partying, dating or sleeping around as much because they’re sitting in their bedrooms, texting on their phones, and liking each other’s photos on Instagram. Their social life and preferred entertainment come directly and privately to them, on their phone.

Teens not wanting to grow up isn’t that new. We’ve seen elements of that since the 1960s. But teens have always craved independence. If you’re over 30, you probably remember wanting your driver’s license — the moment you turned 16. We wanted to hang out with our friends at the mall after school, to see movies with them, to drive in to the city with them, and to stay out as late as possible. We wanted the freedoms of adulthood if not the responsibilities.

But today’s teens are less likely to leave the house without Mom or Dad. High school seniors in 2015 went out less often than eighth-graders did in 2009. That’s just a six year span! Twenge writes, “The number of teens who get together with their friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40% from 2000 to 2015; the decline has been especially steep recently.” More than one in four teens today completes high school before even getting their driver’s license.

Psychologically Vulnerable

So what’s the problem with being a homebody? If teens are home, they can be studying or enjoying family time. Well, teens aren’t getting closer to their parents. But they are spending a lot more time staring into their beloved cell phones.

And here’s the big problem: The more time they spend looking at a screen, the more miserable they tend to be. This is especially true, Twenge reports, with social media time. Some interesting data:

  • 8th graders who spend 10+ hours per week on social media are 56% more likely to say they’re unhappy that those who spend less time.
  • If you decrease the social media time to 6-9 hours per week? Now you’re only 47% more likely to say you’re unhappy that those who use social media even less.
  • Teens who spend 3+ hours per day on electronic devices are 35% more likely to have a risk factor for suicide.
  • Teens’ feelings of loneliness spiked in 2013 and have remained high ever since.

What’s Happening?

Too much time on social media promotes a sense that we’re being left out. That others are more popular. Or that they have a better life. This seems to be especially true for girls: “48% more girls said they often felt left out in 2015 than in 2010, compared with 27% more boys.” That’s a big swing in just five years.

Extreme social media usage can also make kids anxious. You post something, but then you keep coming back to see how much interaction you get. There’s also the fear of missing out on the latest tid-bit of information. Teens often feel anxious to respond to text messages at once or else their friends will “think they’re mad at them.” For many, their phone is the first thing they see in the morning and the last thing they see at night — and it’s often on all night, buzzing with every incoming note. This cuts down on their quality of their sleep at a time when experts say they need 9+ hours per night.

In fact, the number of teens getting less than 7 hours of sleep per night increased by 57% from 1991 to 2015. Just from 2012 to 2015, 22% more teens stopped getting 7 hours of sleep. The teens not getting at least 7 hours of shut-eye? They tend to be the ones on social media every day. And lack of sleep is known to drive … depression and anxiety.

What Should We Do?

Okay, so now that we’re all freaked out about our teens, what should we do? First off, we should be sobered by how much is at stake in getting our teens to use their phones responsibly. We’re talking about a far more powerful device than the TV in the family room that our parents told us to turn off. It makes good sense to monitor how much free time our teens are spending on their electronic gadgets, to set limits, and to explain why doing so is for their good. Ultimately, they need to internalize these principles as they leave our homes for college and for their own adult lives. Twenge found that bad effects on mental health and sleep show up in those spending more than 2 hours per day on social media. Shorter version: You don’t have to abstain, but you do have to moderate.

We also need to set a good example for them. It’s one thing to redeem dead time. But if they see that we’re constantly distracted by our phones when we should be present with our families, they will assume it’s okay to do likewise. Many of us find it difficult to read our Bibles and to pray because of our phones. Twenge’s research is a call for us to revitalize our own ability to be quiet, to be present, and to be engaged in the real world.


Dr. Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor at California Baptist University and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).

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