As a lover of technology, it pains me to see what technological advancements are doing to our youth. In a previous article for The Atlantic,1 Jean Twenge takes a deep dive into how smartphones, with 24/7 access to internet and social media, are affecting post-millennials’ mental health.
The article, which is well worth reading in its entirety, is adapted from Twenge’s book “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood — and What That Means for the Rest of Us.”
Children today cannot even fathom a life pre-internet — a life where school work involved visits to libraries and phone calls required you to stay in one spot, since the telephone was attached to the wall. Kids spend an inordinate amount of time on their smartphones, communicating with friends (and possibly strangers) via text, Twitter and Facebook, and work to keep up their Snapstreaks on Snapchat.
Even toddlers are proficient in navigating their way around a wireless tablet these days. Twenge discusses the online habits of Athena, a 13-year-old Texan, saying:
“She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. ‘We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.’”
Rise of the iGeneration
Twenge, who has studied generational differences for two and a half decades, notes that a generation typically becomes defined by changes in beliefs and behaviors that gradually and naturally arise along a more or less natural continuum. The post-millennial generation, however, is radically different. Twenge notes “abrupt shifts in teen behavior and emotional states” emerged suddenly around 2012.
Millennials, distinguished by a pronounced individualistic streak, stand in sharp contrast to those following, in whom the drive for independence and individualism has virtually vanished.
“At first I presumed these might be blips, but the trends persisted, across several years and a series of national surveys,” Twenge writes. “The changes weren’t just in degree, but in kind. The biggest difference between the millennials and their predecessors was in how they viewed the world; teens today differ from the millennials not just in their views but in how they spend their time.
The experiences they have every day are radically different from those of the generation that came of age just a few years before them. What happened in 2012 to cause such dramatic shifts in behavior? … [I]t was exactly the moment when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent.
The more I pored over yearly surveys of teen attitudes and behaviors, and the more I talked with young people like Athena, the clearer it became that theirs is a generation shaped by the smartphone and by the concomitant rise of social media.
I call them iGen. Born between 1995 and 2012, members of this generation are growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet.”
Today’s Teens — Physically Safer but Psychologically Vulnerable
According to Twenge, the social impact of smartphones and tablets “has not been fully appreciated, and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans.” Perhaps most importantly, smartphones have changed the way teens interact socially, and this has significant ramifications for their psychological health.
Teens today are far less likely to want to get a driver’s license than previous generations, and a majority of their social life is carried out in the solitude of their bedroom, via their smartphones. As of 2015, 12th-graders spent less time “hanging out” and socializing with friends than eighth-graders did in 2009.
While this makes them physically safer than any previous generation, this kind of isolation does not bode well for mental health and the building of social skills required for work and personal relationships.
In fact, today’s teens are also far less prone to date than previous generations. In 2015, 56 percent of high school seniors dated, nearly 30 percent less than boomers and Gen Xers. Not surprisingly, sexual activity has also declined — down by about 40 percent since 1991, resulting in a 67 percent drop in teen pregnancy rates. Avoiding the drama and heartbreak of those early love experiences has not had a positive effect on emotional health, however.
Rates of teen depression and suicide have dramatically risen since 2011, and data suggest spending three hours or more each day on electronic devices raises a teen’s suicide risk by 35 percent. Between 2007 and 2015, the suicide rate for 12- to 14-year-old girls rose threefold — a gender trend that can in part be blamed on a rise in cyberbullying, which is more common among girls. The suicide rate among boys doubled in that same time frame.
“It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades,” Twenge writes, adding that “Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones … There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives — and making them seriously unhappy.”
Depression Risk Rises in Tandem With Increased Screen Time
Data from the annual Monitoring the Future survey reveals the more time teens spend online, the unhappier they are, and those who spend more time than average on in-person relations and activities that do not involve their smartphone are far more likely to report being “happy.” Results such as these really should come as no surprise. Spending time outdoors has been scientifically shown to dramatically improve people’s mood and significantly reduce symptoms of depression.2
Interestingly, it doesn’t matter what type of screen activity is involved. They’re all equally likely to cause psychological distress. Between 2012 and 2015, depressive symptoms among boys rose by 21 percent. Among girls, the rise during that same time was a whopping 50 percent — a truly remarkable increase in just three years’ time.
“If you were going to give advice for a happy adolescence based on this survey, it would be straightforward: Put down the phone, turn off the laptop and do something — anything — that does not involve a screen,” Twenge writes.
Many Teens Exhibit Compulsive Obsession With Their Smartphone
Many, both children and adults, are also exhibiting signs of addiction to their electronic devices. Remarkably, many even sleep with their smartphones right next to them in bed, or directly under their pillow — a trend that is bound to cause severe harm to both their mental and physical health.
The radiation alone is a significant hazard and is known to disrupt sleep, but the blue light from the screen, plus the beeping and pinging when messages and other notifications come in are bound to interrupt sleep as well.
This does not even factor in the influence of cellphone microwaves influencing melatonin, which regulates your sleep-wake cycle. When your melatonin production is disrupted, it can have long-term health effects, as shown in a 2013 study3 in which the U.S. government collaborated with the Egyptian Foreign Ministry to assess the effects of cellphone radiation on the central nervous system.
They found that exposure to cellphone radiation for just one hour a day for one month caused rats to experience a period of delay period before entering rapid eye movement deep sleep — a phase necessary for restful sleep.
Another study4 published in 2015 found that 1.8 GHz frequencies affected rats’ circadian rhythm and decreased their daily production of melatonin. Superoxide dismutase and glutathione peroxidase (which help prevent cellular damage) were also decreased. Low melatonin is actually used as a marker for disturbed sleep.5 Until I personally addressed the ELF (electrical fields) in my bedroom, I could not get my deep sleep levels into healthy ranges.
It comes as no great surprise then that sleep deprivation among teenagers rose by 57 percent between 1991 and 2015. Many do not even get seven hours of sleep on a regular basis, while science reveals they need a minimum of eight and as much as 10 hours to maintain their health. Twenge writes about the habits of those she interviewed:
“Their phone was the last thing they saw before they went to sleep and the first thing they saw when they woke up … Some used the language of addiction. ‘I know I shouldn’t, but I just can’t help it,’ one said about looking at her phone while in bed. Others saw their phone as an extension of their body — or even like a lover: ‘Having my phone closer to me while I’m sleeping is a comfort.’”
Internet Addiction — A Growing Epidemic
Dependence or addiction to a digital device hooked to the internet affected 6 percent of the world population in 2014.6 This number may not appear to be significant on the surface, but consider that 6 percent of the world population was over 420 million people and that estimate has likely sharply risen in the last three years.7
Comparatively speaking, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 3.5 to 7 percent of the world population between 15 and 64 years had used an illicit drug in the past year.8
The percentage of those addicted to the internet may actually be higher as only 39 percent of the world in 2014 had access to the internet,9 driving the real percentage of those addicted to 15 percent. Symptoms of addiction are similar to other types of addiction, but are more socially acceptable. The authors of the study found an internet addiction (IA) is:10
“… [G]enerally regarded as a disorder of concern because the neural abnormalities (e.g., atrophies in dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) and cognitive dysfunctions (e.g., impaired working memory) associated with IA mimic those related to substance and behavioral addiction. Moreover, IA is often comorbid with mental disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and depression.”
Reach Out Recovery identifies conditions that may trigger internet addiction or compulsions, including anxiety, depression, other addictions, social isolation and stress.11 Internet activity may stimulate your brain’s reward system, much like drugs and alcohol, providing a constant source of information and entertainment. While each person’s internet use is different, the results may be the same. Long-term effects may include:
Irritation when someone interrupts your interaction online
Difficulty completing tasks
Experiencing euphoria while online
Inability to stop despite the consequences
Google Would Like You to Keep On Using
It should come as no surprise that companies that make money when more people spend more time and money on the internet are consciously trying to manipulate your behavior. Former Google product manager Tristan Harris revealed how digital giants are engineering smartphone apps and social media feedback to get you checking and double-checking online.12
However, while internet use is more socially acceptable, digital companies aren’t the only businesses using neurological and psychological strategies to increase their profit margins.13 Behavior patterns are often etched into neural pathways,14 and when those behaviors are also linked to hormone secretion and physiological responses, they become even more powerful.
In fact, Harris describes the reward process of using a smartphone as “playing the slot machine.”15 And, Google has discovered a way to embed that reward system as you use the apps on your phone. This process is so important to digital corporations that Apple turned down a new smartphone app for their store that would help people to reduce their use of the internet and their smartphones.
In the video above, Harris describes a process known in programing circles as “brain hacking,” as they incorporate knowledge of neuropsychology into the development of digital interfaces that boost interaction. For instance, getting likes on Facebook and Instagram, the “streaks” on Snapchat or cute emojis on texts are all designed to increase your engagement and desire to return.
Harris describes it as a race to the bottom of the brainstem where fear and anxiety live, two of the most powerful motivators known to advertisers. Both advertisers and computer software developers are using these techniques to write code that will engage your attention.16
Wireless Technologies Wreak Havoc With Your Child’s Health and Well-Being
In 2011, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer declared cellphones a Group 2B “possible human carcinogen”17 related to the microwave radiation emitted from the phone. Even cellphone manufacturers place warnings on their products to keep them at least 1 inch from your body.18
A systematic review and meta-analysis19 published in PLOS One in 2017 also warns that there’s a “significant positive association between long-term mobile phone use (minimum, 10 years) and glioma.” Overall, cellphone use for at least one decade was associated with a 2.22 greater odds of developing brain cancer. Such findings have gained strength with the publication of two lifetime exposure studies20,21 on animals, both of which confirmed an increased risk of brain tumors.
While cancer is certainly a long-term concern, there are more pressing health effects associated with chronic, round-the-clock electromagnetic field (EMF) exposure.
Research22,23 by professor Martin Pall, Ph.D., reveals a previously unknown mechanism of biological harm from microwaves emitted by cellphones and other wireless technologies, which helps explain why these technologies can have such a potent impact on mental health specifically. Embedded in your cell membranes are voltage gated calcium channels (VGCCs), which are activated by microwaves.
When that happens, a flood of calcium ions is released, which stimulates the release of nitric oxide (NO) inside your cells and mitochondria.
The NO then combines with superoxide to form peroxynitrite, which in turn creates hydroxyl free radicals — some of the most destructive free radicals known to man — which in turn decimate mitochondrial and nuclear DNA, their membranes and proteins. The result is mitochondrial dysfunction, which we now know is at the heart of most chronic disease.
Excessive EMF Exposure Can Trigger Anxiety, Depression and Memory Problems
The reason excessive EMF exposure is associated with depression and neurological dysfunction, including dementia, is because your brain has the highest density of VGCCs in your body. The pacemaker in your heart and male testes are also high-density areas, and EMF exposure has been linked to cardiac arrhythmias and infertility as well. I simply do not believe bathing a fetus in EMFs in utero is a good idea.
Without fully understanding the mechanisms involved, studies have linked excessive exposure to EMFs to an increased risk of both depression and suicide.24 Addiction to or “high engagement” with mobile devices can also trigger depression and anxiety, according to recent research from the University of Illinois.25
According to Nicholas Carr, author of the book, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” millennials are experiencing greater problems with forgetfulness than seniors.26 This is the “dark side” of neurological plasticity that allows your brain to adapt to changes in your environment. This type of plasticity is one way your brain recovers after a stroke has permanently damaged one area.
A loss of white matter,27,28 reduced cortical thickness29,30 and impaired cognitive functioning31 are other brain structure and functional changes that have been demonstrated from long-term internet use. It is impossible to ignore that these devices are changing your brain structure, and the experience is also increasing exposure to microwave radiation and large amounts of blue light at night, thereby impacting your child’s body’s ability to produce melatonin.
So, if your child or teen is showing signs of anxiety or depression, please, do what you must to limit their exposure to wireless technology. Teach them more responsible usage.
At bare minimum, insist on their turning off phones and tablets at night, and to not sleep with their phone beneath their pillow or directly near their head. Really try to minimize the presence of electronic devices in their bedroom and, to protect everyone in your household and instill the concept of “off times,” shut down your Wi-Fi at night.