Tony Tramelli, MA, LPC

Every generation of adults looks to the next generation with some sense of trepidation.  Beliefs and values within a society change over time.  Although it may seem that the world has always changed drastically from one generation to the next, in the past this has actually happened quite slowly.  There has always been a sense of continuity between generations.  We are usually informed and influenced by those that came before us.

However, the generation that is coming of age today is experiencing something drastically different from any previous generation.  Today’s youth are being shaped in large measure, not by their elders, but by the smartphone and social media.  These individuals were born between the years 1995 and 2012 and are being called the iGeneration.  They have grown up with smartphones, and they do not remember a time without the internet.  The oldest of this generation were adolescents when the iPhone came out in 2007, and juniors and seniors in high school when the iPad was introduced.

Long before the introduction of smartphones and tablets, people have been discussing the negative effects of screen time.  The belief was that sitting in front of the television or playing Nintendo was going to “rot your brain.”  There is a false belief that smartphones and social media are just new versions of televisions and videogames; that all we need to be worried about are decreased attention spans.  This is simply not the case.  The impact that these technologies are having on the teenage experience is neither fully appreciated nor understood.  Today’s technologies and social media have changed everything, from the way teenagers socialize to the way they define themselves and their self-worth.

The iGeneration is quite possibly physically safer than any in history.  They are less likely to drink and use drugs, get into a car accident, or engage in sexual relationships.  Although physically safer, psychologically they are increasingly vulnerable.  The year 2012 marked the moment when more than fifty percent of Americans owned a smartphone.  Since that year, rates of teen depression and anxiety have increased dramatically.  Boys’ depressive symptoms increased by 21 percent from 2012 to 2015, and girls’ symptoms increased by 50 percent during that period.

The same years also saw a dramatic rise in suicide deaths.  Three times as many 12-to-14-year-old girls took their own lives in 2015 than in 2007, and twice as many boys.  Suicide is now the second leading cause of death among middle school, high school, and college aged students.  Current research correlates time spent online to depression and anxiety, and according to a study done this year, the average American teenager is spending about nine hours a day consuming digital media.  The average tween is spending about six hours per day doing so.  As our young people increasingly use online social media to connect, they are ever more likely to feel alone, worried, left out, and depressed.

The large amounts of time being spent on these devices has different effects at different stages of development.  When we look at very young children using smartphones to play games and watch videos, our main concern is the immediate gratification that they are experiencing throughout the activity.  Young children’s brains are being wired to expect that same immediate gratification in everything they do.  Of course, nothing else in this world delivers the same type of immediate stimulation that the phone does.   Because of this conditioning, they are much quicker to get upset or lose control when they experience any boredom or delay in gratification.  This makes it almost impossible to enjoy other types of activities that may not result in the same sort of stimulation.  More time spent on phones or tablets equals less time engaging in imaginative play, which is an integral part of their cognitive development.  Unlike time online, however, imaginative play has been shown to improve social skills, patience, and empathy.

As children get older and start using their phones more for social engagement, we see the issues broaden in scope.  Adolescents are not experiencing the same type of social interaction with their peers as past generations, nor as is appropriate for their social development.  A recent study by the PEW Research Center reports that only about thirty five percent of teenagers interact with their friends face-to-face on a daily basis.  This lack of engagement in real life peer relationships can hurt their ability to develop healthy relationships in the future.  Relationships arise through experience and require certain skills, for example, reading facial expressions, interpreting voice inflection, and feeling empathy.  If adolescents are missing out on time spent with their friends, they are missing out on the opportunities to learn about and practice those skills that enable healthy relationships.

It is not simply the amount of time spent online rather than with their peers that is concerning, it is what our youth are doing online and why they are doing it.  The large majority of teenagers are online because they want to make sure their posts and comments are getting “likes,” to be sure that their friends aren’t doing anything without them, to ascertain that nothing bad is being said about them on social media, and to be able to retaliate if there is.  Adolescents are basing their overall sense of self-worth on the reactions and opinions of possibly thousands of individuals that they have never met, while maintaining an online persona that extends across multiple social media profiles – a persona that has to be managed, updated, and defended constantly and vigilantly.  Keeping up with this task is incredibly stressful, anxiety provoking, and age inappropriate.  It is all too much for the adolescent brain to handle.  They desperately need time away from technology, away from the pressures of social media, time to be themselves, time to be kids.

Younger and older youth alike need to be shown an alternative to this type of existence, and this must be shown to them by the important adults in their lives.  These issues with technology are not limited to the young.  The average teenager is spending about nine hours a day online, but the average adult is spending about ten and a half hours per day consuming some sort of digital media (email, texting, social media, television, etc.)  How can we expect our children to limit their screen time, when most of the adults in their lives are looking at those exact same screens?

Our society needs to rethink and repurpose how we use to technology.  This happens first and foremost within the family.  Parents can set personal limits and boundaries with technology to better their own lives, while at the same time setting good examples for their children.  One easy way to do this is to limit the amount of time we spend with our devices.  Make an effort in the evenings to unplug and connect with one another.  Provide other sources of enjoyment and entertainment; art projects, board games, reading, writing, etc.  It’s also smart to be conscious of where we are using our devices.  Do we have our phones out at the dinner table?  How about at a family party?  At Church?  At a parent teacher conference?  Are we texting or checking social media while we are conversing with friends or family?  We surely have all been guilty of some of these things at some point, but for many of us it is a constant struggle.

These devices came with a promise to keep us connected like never before, but what they have done instead is made it almost impossible to connect with those around us.  We are in a constant state of distraction, trying desperately to be present in the moment, while being pulled in a thousand different directions.  As adults, we have the luxury of remembering a time when things were a bit simpler, when personal and societal boundaries were more clear and appropriate.  The iGeneration does not have this same insight.  It is up to us to show them a better way, to inform and influence them as the previous generations did for us.

Tony Tramelli, MA, LPC works with individuals, couples, and families on issues including depression, anxiety, grief, behavioral issues, academic problems and issues surrounding marital concerns and family transition. Tony also works with young adults and their parents regarding financial and emotional independence. He provides therapy for issues around technology, including internet pornography and gaming addiction. He also provides presentations and seminars to schools on technology related topics.

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