The psychological toll of smartphones
The news about the tragic deaths of infants in Gorakhpur and Nashik hospitals shocked everyone and forced the government machinery to step in on an emergency basis. At the same time, news reports of youngsters committing suicide for various reasons are a daily feature in newspapers. Although on the surface, the causes of these two sets of deaths appear different, on closer inspection, they seem to emanate from a common cause.
The immediate cause for deaths in Gorakhpur hospitals is attributed to non-availability of oxygen cylinders. Looking back on a temporal scale for the reasons for the non-availability of oxygen cylinders in Gorakhpur, one sees a much larger problem: decades of apathy, gross negligence towards maternal and child health in the state and country, leading to the non-availability of the most vital ingredient of life, oxygen.
The recent teenage suicides have been attributed to internet games like the Blue Whale Challenge, and the failure to perform well in competitive exams, etc. But if we were to travel backwards on a temporal scale, we realize that the root cause of the problem is the non-availability of an essential ingredient to human life, an oxygen of a different kind.
What is the root cause of teenage suicides?
Cellphone is the most quickly adopted consumer technology in the history of the world. But recently, several studies are also throwing up the consequences of this technology on human beings. A study published in the Journal Of The Association For Consumer Research showed that just the presence of a cellphone next to a person or a person being present in the same room as one’s cellphone will reduce that person’s working memory and problem-solving skills.
The article in The Atlantic “Have Smartphones Destroyed A Generation” by Jean M. Twenge talks about the abrupt shifts in behaviours and emotional states of teenagers. The article focused on those born between 1995 and 2012, what the author refers to as the iGen generation.
According to the article, while 87% of the baby boomer generation, born between the 1940s and the 1960s, went on a date, only 57% of the iGen generation are likely to go on a date. The number of sexually active teenagers have reduced by 40% since 1991. The teenage pregnancy rate hit an all-time low in 2016. Unlike the previous generation of teenagers who waited for the day they turned 18 to apply for a driving licence, the passport to freedom, the iGen generation still prefers to be driven around by their parents.
What is the iGen generation up to? They are on their phones, sitting in their rooms, all alone. Their social life is spent on the phone. They don’t leave their rooms to interact with their friends. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of teens who got together with their friends dropped by more than 40%.
Famous British anthropologist Robin Dunbar had identified the limits of one’s social networks based in part on cognitive constraints and in part on the time costs of servicing these relationships.
Dunbar has identified 150 as the largest number of people that a human being can maintain a regular relationship with. Within this group, the 15 closest relationships become most crucial when it comes to one’s mental and physical heath. Dunbar concluded that of this set of 15 people, the number of people a human being depends for emotional support in times of crisis—the support clique—is only five.
But according to an article in the American Sociological Review, “Social Isolation In America: Changes In Core Discussion Networks Over Two Decades”, modern teenagers are paupers when it comes to having a support clique.
Based on data from General Social Survey (GSS), the study concluded that the number of teenagers who say they have no close friends has roughly tripled since 1985. “Zero” is the number of confidants reported by almost a quarter of those surveyed. Several other studies too have established that today’s teenagers are the loneliest generation in the history of mankind.
A 2009 study based on data collected from Framingham, Massachusetts since 1948, found that participants are 52% more likely to be lonely if someone they’re directly in touch with—friend, neighbour, co-worker of family member—is lonely. Loneliness is a contagious disease. But why has it recently gotten worse?
There is a direct correlation between loneliness and the usage of smartphones and social media. The more time a teenager spends on the smartphone, more likely that he or she will show symptoms of depression. Teens who spend more than 3 hours on their smartphones per day are 35% more at risk of suicide.
Loneliness among American teenagers peaked in 2013, the year the number of people who owned a smartphone crossed the 50% mark. The level of loneliness has remained high ever since.
India has one of the largest young populations in the world. It also has one of the largest user bases of smartphones in the world. India should be cognizant of the psychological toll of the smartphone.
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently said, we need to wean our children off their PlayStations and get them on to the playgrounds. Online social interactions are not an effective alternative to real face-to-face interactions.
Our educational system should be revamped so as to help enhance the face-to-face social interactions of teenagers. These social interactions are as life-giving as the oxygen cylinders were to the infants in the Gorakhpur hospital.
Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.