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Harvard EdCast: Smartphones, Teens, and Unhappiness

By Jill Anderson on May 16, 2018 4:19 PM
Psychologist Jean Twenge discusses her research that examines how smartphones affect teens' happiness, and advises on how children and adults can use smartphones in the healthiest ways.

Teens and SmartphonesWhen San Diego State University Professor Jean Twenge, a psychologist who studies generational shifts, saw a spike in teen mental health issues between 2011 and 2015, she wanted to find out why. The spike, she explains, was sudden, with major depressive episodes among teens increasing by 50 percent within those few years.

“It was the start of a journey in what changed in teen’s lives,” she says.

With more examination, Twenge recognized that the rise of the smartphone in teen’s lives coincided with the rise of teens' feelings of uselessness, as well as with the fall of their satisfaction and happiness.

“The largest change and most pervasive change in teen’s lives was more smartphones and more time on social media,” she says. Smartphones had disrupted the majority of teen’s lives, including time they used to spend socializing in person and sleeping. “It would be extremely surprising if the shift toward teens spending the majority of their leisure time staring at a screen didn’t have effects,” says Twenge, who authored 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. Despite the shift, Twenge also isn’t entirely anti-smartphone.

“This is not about taking the phone away. They are wonderful devices, but it’s limited use,” she says, especially for teens. “Make sure the phone doesn’t become an appendage.”

In this edition of the Harvard EdCast, Twenge discusses her research examining teens, smartphones, and unhappiness. She also advises how children and adults can use smartphones in the healthiest ways.

For another perspective on teens and social media, as well as advice on when to give children smartphones, visit Usable Knowledge.

About the Harvard EdCast

The Harvard EdCast is a weekly series of podcasts, available on the Harvard University iTunes U page, that features a 15-20 minute conversation with thought leaders in the field of education from across the country and around the world. Hosted by Matt Weber and co-produced by Jill Anderson, the Harvard EdCast is a space for educational discourse and openness, focusing on the myriad issues and current events related to the field.