May 18, 2023 — America’s fascination with, and dependence on, smartphones seems to know no end — and if you think it’s as common for kids to stare at their screens as adults do, you’d be right. Several studies have found that more children are using smartphones and similar digital devices (such as tablets) and at younger ages.
A 2020 Pew Research Center report found that more than a third of the 1,600 parents interviewed said their children began using a smartphone before the age of 5, and a quarter said their children’s smartphone involvement began between the ages of 5 and 8.
A 2019 Common Sense Media survey found that more than half of American children own their own smartphone by the time they are 11 years old.
But is this increased use of smartphones good for children’s mental health? A new report by Sapien Labs, published this week, used global data from 27,969 Generation Z youth (aged 18-24) to focus on the potential relationship between childhood smartphone use and current mental health. After all, this is “the first generation to go through adolescence with this technology,” explains Tara Thiagarajan, PhD, founder and chief scientist at Sapien Labs.
The report found that mental health “consistently improves with age at first smartphone or tablet possession, with a more drastic change in females, compared to males.”
In fact, the percentage of females experiencing mental health issues decreased from 74% for those who received their first smartphone at age 6 to 46% for those who got it at age 18. smartphone at the age of 6 to 36% of those who had it at the age of 18.
“The earlier you get your smartphone as a child, the worse your mental health is likely to be as an adult,” Thiagarajan said.
The course of decline in mental health
Thiagarajan said her organization was excited to conduct the study because it “tracks the evolution of mental well-being around the world with the goal of understanding what is driving the current decline in mental well-being in younger generations.”
Their goals are to “unearth the root causes so that we can identify appropriate preventive strategies that can reverse the trend.”
She noted, “The downward trajectory we’re seeing [in mental health] It tracks the rise of smartphones, and there is a great deal of literature linking social media and the smartphone to negative outcomes, so it was high on the list of potential root causes to be explored.”
She explains that Sapien Labs’ Global Mind Project is “an ongoing survey of global mental health, combined with many factors of lifestyle and life experience.” It “acquires data using an assessment of 47 items covering a wide range of symptoms and mental abilities on the Life Impact Scale that are combined to provide an overall score.”
One of the categories examined is the social self – “a measure of how we view ourselves and relate to others”. It is one of the six parts of mental function, and it improves dramatically with age in the possession of the first smartphone in young men and women.
“For females, other dimensions such as mood, outlook, adaptability, and resilience also improved sharply” in those who got their first smartphone at an older age. Notably, issues related to suicidal thoughts, feelings of aggression toward others, a sense of detachment from reality, and hallucinations “decreased sharply and significantly” with age in owning the first smartphone for females, and for males as well, but to a lesser degree.
Smartphones magnify existing mental health challenges
Katrina Fauci, a 17-year-old at St. Benedict Prep School in Newark, NJ, has faced mental health challenges throughout her life — particularly anxiety and depression. “I’ve worked through them,” she said, “and I’m very proud of the progress I’ve made.”
Although she didn’t start using smartphones in early childhood — she didn’t get her first phone until eighth grade — she believes smartphone use may have exacerbated her mental health issues since then.
“It depended on the type of media you used,” she said. “Social media has been the biggest aspect of my smartphone use.”
Katrina was not surprised to learn the results of Sabine’s report. “There’s a distinct beauty standard that a lot of people, especially women, are trying to achieve, and there’s a lot of pressure to perform, and that’s driven by digital devices like smartphones.”
Also, “there is still cyberbullying that can affect mental health. It is easier to engage in bullying when you are hiding behind a screen because there is less accountability than if you are in person,” she said.
Katrina, who works as a hands-on medium and mentor for classmates with mental health challenges, deleted her social media accounts because she felt that being online was not connected to her mental health.
Simina Carey, MA, is a certified school counselor at St. Benedict Preparatory School, and is a clinician who works with Katrina and other young people. “Working with girls, I see many of them become anxious, depressed, and lonely, and phones amplify that.”
Feeling left out is common when using social media, where everyone seems to be on vacation, have perfect bodies, or just have fun. Little ones wonder, “Why don’t I do these things?” Ultimately Curry said they are in “silent competition” with each other. The younger they start, the more this mindset is created and reinforced.
Research has shown that children spend between 5 and 8 hours on the Internet per day, according to Thiagarajan. “Up to 2,950 hours a year! Before using a smartphone, a lot of that time could be spent engaging in some way with family and friends.”
She describes social behavior as “complex”, noting that it “needs learning and practice in order to master it and build relationships.” But today’s kids don’t get enough social training,” so they struggle in the social world. Social activity on the Internet is not the same [as in-person socializing] Because it distorts reality and removes many methods of communication such as eye contact, body language reflection, touch, and smell, which are necessary for human bonding.”
Benjamin Maxwell, MD, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, and chief of behavioral health at Rady Children’s Hospital, wasn’t surprised by the findings in Sabin’s study.
“At Rady Children’s Hospital, it’s common for us to see patients with mental health issues because of their relationship with their smartphones,” he said. “From severe cyberbullying to feeling left out from social events, we see these issues on a daily basis.”
He stressed the “value of personal social contact and its impact on our psychological health” and said: “As more children spend time interacting virtually and asynchronously, it can have a ripple effect, leading to problems such as poor sleep, increased image focus and popularity.” and, ultimately, mental health concerns.”
By recognizing the impact smartphones can have on mental health, Maxwell said, “we can work on ways to foster healthy relationships with technology and prioritize personal social connection.”
guinea pig generation
“Unfortunately, Generation Z is a guinea pig generation, and the struggles they face are a result of the environment they were born into,” said Thiagarajan.
But “the human brain and mind are remarkably malleable, and we are capable of learning and change at any age.” “Recognizing the consequences of smartphones is the first step,” Thiagarajan believes.
They should “understand that they have been deprived of hours of social interaction and must find ways to compensate,” advises General Zers. With practice, personal interactions will become “easier and more enjoyable,” so “start connecting with more friends and family, volunteering, or joining an interest group.”
Advice for parents
A recent story of a “heroic” seventh grader who managed to steer and stop a school bus after the driver became incapacitated was attributed to the fact that he was the only kid on the bus who wasn’t on a smartphone.
Instead of staring at the screen, he had watched the driver pass by, so he was aware of how the driver stopped the bus. Not concentrating on his phone, he realized the driver could no longer operate the bus and sprang to work.
Thiagarajan urges parents to focus on their children’s social development. “It is fundamentally important for their mental well-being and their ability to navigate the world.”
She advised parents to “make sure their children spend at least a few hours a day engaging personally with family and friends without a smartphone in the middle and building the skills and relationships that will help them through life.”