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New Research Casts Doubt On Connection Between Smartphone Use And Teen Mental Health


Fact - more teens and tweens, particularly girls, report being depressed and anxious compared with a decade ago. Suicides are also up. The reasons why are not clear. Some researchers say with nearly every teenager using a smartphone these days, digital media must share some of the blame. We take a look at the controversy in this week's All Tech Considered.


KELLY: NPR's Anya Kamenetz hosts our Life Kit parenting podcast. And she joins us now.

Hey, Anya.


KELLY: Hey. So for Life Kit, you reached out to listeners. You asked them whether they struggled with their kids and their devices. Who'd you talk to and what'd you hear?

KAMENETZ: That's right. We heard from around 200 families from all over the country. And I went to Chicago to meet one of them that had a story to share.


KAMENETZ: Hi. How's it going?

GEOFF: Good. How are you?

KAMENETZ: Good. I'm Anya.

GEOFF: Hi, Anya. Nice to meet you.

KAMENETZ: So that's Geoff. I meet his wife, Ellie, and their three kids. We're not using their last names to protect their privacy. And they're especially concerned about Abby, their 14-year-old daughter. You know, in the big picture, she's doing pretty well. She gets good grades. She has good friends. She likes to draw. But they are also worried about her because she is so attached her iPhone.


GEOFF: We had the phone time cut off. And then at midnight, we see that she's actively, you know, using the phone even though she shouldn't be able to.

KAMENETZ: And Ellie says she feels kind of cut off from all of her kids because they are just so into their devices.


ELLIE: They don't hear anything we say. They're not involved in any conversation we are because they have the headphones in. And if I say, hey, can you come over here so we can - they don't hear me. And I'm like, hey. And then I'm like - I have to come all the way into two rooms over, wave my hands and then I'm doing 17 steps just to get the attention that I need from asking a question of my daughter.

KELLY: I'm sitting here nodding along. Anya, as the mom of two teenagers, this sounds like a scene that plays out in my house every day. I can totally relate.

KAMENETZ: I totally understand that. Yes. And what I also want to add to this, though, is Abby's point of view on this. So let me just set the scene. I'm sitting with everyone in the family room. Abby's on the sectional couch in her normal spot. She's got the iPhone in her hand. And up to this point, she's been really, really soft spoken, but then I asked her, what is it about the phone? What do you wish that grown-ups knew about the phone?


ABBY: Taking it away won't eliminate problems because it's not the sole reason that they existed in the first place.

GEOFF: Well said.

ABBY: Yeah.

ELLIE: Can I say something? I recently showed Abby an article about children, teenagers with depression and the screens and that there's a rise in depression and a rise in suicide along with a rise in screen use.

KELLY: That's the mom weighing in there. So she's talking about the study that we referenced at the beginning.

KAMENETZ: That's exactly right. So when Ellie brought that up, I turned to Abby.


KAMENETZ: And so what did you think when your parents showed you that article?

ABBY: It said it like it's the only reason and not, like, stress from school, from, like, other people, from other things happening. It's just - it always acts like the iPhones are the only reason that kids are depressed and can't sleep and have all of these problems. It's never the only reason.

KELLY: So, Anya, I'm listening, and I can't help but I am a mom and I hear Abby saying it's not the only reason, but are her parents right to be worried about her phone use? What does the research say?

KAMENETZ: Well, that's exactly what I wanted to get further into. So I actually called up the researcher who produced that very study. She's a psychologist named Jean Twenge.


JEAN TWENGE: Hi there.

KAMENETZ: How are you?

TWENGE: I'm good.

KAMENETZ: And I asked her how she got drawn to this idea, this question.

TWENGE: At first, when I saw these trends in loneliness and unhappiness and depression starting to spike around 2011 or 2012, I really had no idea what could possibly be causing that. It was a real mystery. And then I stumbled across a poll from the Pew Center for Research, which showed that 2012 was the first year in which a majority of Americans owned a smartphone.

KAMENETZ: And Twenge basically is putting two and two together to say this - smartphones is a new factor in teens' lives. And we should pay attention to it.

KELLY: And that sounds compelling, right? I mean, that's a heck of a coincidence that that same year, 2012, we saw these two spikes.

KAMENETZ: Right. On the other hand, Twenge has attracted a fair number of critics, and they tend to back up Abby's side the argument with her mom. One team, for example, analyzed the exact same data set that Twenge's been looking at. They looked at over 350,000 participants in three huge surveys across the U.S. and the U.K. And Amy Orben, the lead author at Oxford University, told me that they found the connection between teens' mental health and technology use is actually really small.


AMY ORBEN: A teenager's technology use or a teenager's social media use can only predict less than 1% in their variation in a measure of well-being, which is so small that it's surpassed by, for example, whether a teenager wears glasses to school.

KELLY: That's wild. She's saying that whether you wear glasses to school or not as a teenager may be a bigger predictor of depression than how much they use their cellphone. But let me ask you this, Anya - if I am a parent and I'm witnessing my child seeming to be really struggling and I'm also witnessing them spending way too much time on their phone...


KELLY: ...It seems like a commonsense type thing to wonder whether those two things are related.

KAMENETZ: So there is a commonsense action to take here, and all clinicians and researchers say the same thing, which is if you see your child struggling with mental health issues, you should speak to a professional about it. At the same time, some researchers like Orben argue that it may be that spending a lot of time in your phone, truly a lot, like, five to seven hours a day, could be more of a symptom of being depressed rather than a cause of it. There's good evidence for the impact of smartphones on sleep. So, you know, Abby's parents are right to want to try to shut it off or take it away from her at night.

KELLY: That's probably true of all of us, not just teenagers. Go on.

KAMENETZ: A hundred percent all across the board, yes. But there's one other angle to consider, and that is that some teens who are struggling with their mental or emotional health may actually be more drawn to their phones because they find the technology can help them feel better. And Abby actually said something that really spoke to this.


ABBY: Sometimes it actually helps because when you're really upset, you can use your phone to, like, distract yourself or, like, contact a friend who can, like, help you or something or you can just use it to, like, get your mind off of the bad thoughts.

KAMENETZ: And she actually pulled up a video on her phone as an example to show me of a young woman kind of talking about her experiences.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Longer than it should've been. And I think it's about time I talk about it.

ABBY: And it can help to be like, OK, well, this person got better, so I can, too. Or like, oh, hey, this is what happens to, like, avoid it or something.

KAMENETZ: And so, Mary Louise, what I learned from all of this is that if you want to understand how teens' smartphones are affecting their well-being, it might actually really help to listen to them and hear how they're interpreting their own experiences.

KELLY: That requires getting your teenager to talk to you, which is a separate challenge...


KELLY: ...As I can state firsthand. I need no research to support it.

NPR's Anya Kamenetz, thank you so much.

KAMENETZ: Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Anya hosts NPR's Life Kit parenting podcast. The Life Kit series has practical tips on all sorts of things. And you can find it on your smartphone or your laptop at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.