(Photo: iStock)
(Photo: iStock)

Opinion | Tech has radically changed teens’ experiences today

All technologies have obvious benefits and potential harmful effects, but the key lies in moderation

One of the biggest debates of 2019 will be on the effects of digital technology on adolescents and teenagers. This is because these effects will colour their adult behaviour and the way future societies will behave.

It is interesting that tech titans like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs severely restricted their children’s access to technology. The Gates family did not allow the children a phone till they turned 14, set strict limits on screen time, and had them switch off devices well before bedtime. In a 2011 interview, shortly after Apple launched the iPad, Steve Jobs revealed that he prohibited his kids from using the device. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home," he said. Did these men know something we did not?

The results of some studies on teens and digital tech are quite shocking. In her book iGen, Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, trots out many such numbers.

Twenge, who has been researching generational differences for 25 years, says that she noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviours and emotional states beginning from 2012. It was the year the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50%. “Teens today differ from the Millennials not just in their views but in how they spend their time," Twenge writes. “The experiences they have every day are radically different from those of the generation that came of age just a few years before them."

Born between 1995 and 2012, members of this generation, which Twenge calls “iGen", have grown up with smartphones, and do not remember a time before the internet.

According to Twenge, the arrival of the smartphone has dramatically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from social interactions to mental health. This cuts across every demographic group.

The Monitoring the Future survey, funded by the US National Institute on Drug Abuse, has been asking school students more than 1,000 questions every year for decades. In recent years, the survey has consistently found that teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on non-screen activities are more likely to be happy. Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56% more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who devote less time.

Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27%. Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35% more likely to have a risk factor for suicide.

The smartphone is also cutting into teens’ sleep. Teens should get about nine hours of sleep a night; a teen who is getting less than seven hours is significantly sleep deprived. Fifty-seven per cent more teens were sleep deprived in 2015 than in 1991.

“Adolescence is a key time for developing social skills; as teens spend less time with their friends face-to-face, they have fewer opportunities to practise them," writes Twenge. “In the next decade, we may see more adults who know just the right emoji for a situation, but not the right facial expression."

But then there are also research results that are not so alarming. Last year, when the US Congress asked the National Institutes of Health (NIH) about tech’s addictive potential and the effects of screen time on children, NIH director Francis Collins replied that the extent of research in this field was limited and the results were inconclusive.

In fact, though a 2017 study did find an association between screen time and depression rates in young girls, the researchers concluded that the relationship was correlational, which made it impossible to say whether more screen time was leading to higher rates of depression in girls, or vice versa.

The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study is an ongoing long-term investigation of child development. Its preliminary results show that screen time was associated with structural differences in children’s brains. But many childhood activities alter the brain; what matters is the future effects of the alterations. The researchers say they do not know if the structural differences observed are good or bad.

Indeed, a study by the Oxford Internet Institute, which examined the digital habits and mental health of more than 120,000 children, found that a few hours of device use every day was actually associated with better well-being than none at all. The negative associations didn’t crop up until kids were spending six hours or more on their devices per day—and even then, they were small and correlational.

So which studies do we believe? First of all, “screen time" is hardly a homogenous term. The teenager could be using his smartphone or laptop to be learning something useful, or playing a game or interacting on social media. These are all different activities and should not be clubbed together. All technologies have obvious benefits and potential harmful effects. As in mostly everything in life, the key could lie in moderation. Instead of panicking, that is what parents should be trying to teach their children.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of Open and Swarajya magazines

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