Screen Time-Down Time

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Over the past several years, per statistics from the CDC, teenage suicide, which had been decreasing, started back on the rise. While male rates also went up, the 2015 female suicide rate (aged 15 to 19) doubled from 2007, the highest it’s been for the past 40 years (1975-2015).[i] A research letter, published in this month’s Journal of the American Medical Association, said emergency department visits for self-inflicted injuries among females, ages 12 to 17, went up an average of 18.8% per year from 2009 to 2015.[ii] These increases are alarming and have people across this country asking the question, “What’s going on?”

The Association for Psychological Science (APS) recently published a research article titled, “Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time.”[iii] That study’s Abstract section noted, “Since 2010, iGen adolescents have spent more time on new media screen activities and less time on nonscreen activities, which may account for the increases in depression and suicide (page 1).”[iv]

The lead author of that study, Jean Twenge, from the Department of Psychology at San Diego State University, wrote an article this fall for The Atlantic, using a variation of that what’s-going-on question, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” Twenge starts out by describing a conversation she had with a 13-year-old about what this tween-ager and her friends like to do. According to Twenge, “She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said.”[v]

In the Discussion section of the APS study, the authors reported, “Since 2010, adolescents spent more time on social media and electronic devices, activities positively correlated with depressive symptoms and suicide-related outcomes. Over the same years, adolescents spent less time on nonscreen activities such as in-person social interaction, print media, sports/exercise, and attending religious services, activities negatively correlated with depressive symptoms (page 11).”[vi]

What’s going on? Could it be that iPhone given to her for her eleventh birthday? (The average age of a child’s first smartphone is now reported to be just over 10 years old.[vii]) Twenge’s 13-year-old contact, who’s had an iPhone since she was eleven, went on to say. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.’”[viii]

Liking actual people, it turns out, is an important skill and one that takes time and practice. Texting with actual people, posting with actual people, snapchatting with actual people, it turns out, isn’t the same as being with actual people. Being with actual people is how you learn to like actual people, who don’t always do what you want or think what you think or act the way you want them to. People simply aren’t as user-friendly as technology.

Does the APS study say that social media causes depression? No, but what it does say is “new media screen time should be understood as an important modern risk factor in depression and suicide (page 11),” especially when it comes to girls. “The timing of the uptick in mental health issues, beginning around 2011-2012, is also worth noting. Smartphones were used by about half of Americans by late 2012. By 2015, 92% of teens and young adults owned a smartphone (Smith, 2017). Thus, smartphones were used by the majority of teens the year that depressive symptoms began to increase and nearly all teens when depressive symptoms peaked (page 12).”[ix]

We need to give our kids, especially our girls, more of a choice, even if they don’t really want it. When I was growing up, our idea of parental punishment was the dreaded, “Go to your room!” Perhaps, for the good of our kids, we need to start saying, “Get out of your room!”

Authored by Dr. Gregory Jantz, founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and author of 36 books. Pioneering whole-person care nearly 30 years ago, Dr. Jantz has dedicated his life’s work to creating possibilities for others, and helping people change their lives for good. The Center • A Place of HOPE, located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety and others.