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Teens, Screens, and Mental Health

I’ve seen this article being linked from social media: Have Smart Phones Destroyed a Generation? I have an immediate negative reaction to the title, because I think it is a harsh judgement to call an entire generation “destroyed” when the oldest of them is a mere 22 years old. We should probably allow them to exit adolescence and become in charge of their lives before we can make sweeping judgements.

Fortunately the content of the article is far more in depth and less inclined to make sweeping judgements. It has data as well as anecdotes and is cautious about drawing conclusions based on that data. However one point it does make very clear: teens who are on their screens more are less happy and teens who are on their screens less are happier. This fact automatically puts me on the defensive because my kids are on their screens a lot and the implication is that if I would just limit their screen time we would have less trouble with mental health issues. (My brain therefore comes to the “obvious” conclusion that it is All My Fault because I was not a good enough parent.)

However, one thing that the article fails to acknowledge is that correlation is not causation. Are the teens less happy because they’re on their screens more or are they on their screens more because they were already less happy and screens are a safe retreat? I don’t think there is a clear causation either way because it depends on the teen and it depends on the day. I know that when my teens emerge from depression they automatically reduce their screen time without any intervention from me. So I’ve come to rely on screen time as an indicator. It is a piece of the puzzle as we’re trying to help everyone find a balanced life that is basically happy.

I talk to my teens about all of this as we’re discussing how to improve their lives. We also discuss Point of Diminishing Returns. Because I believe that short exposures to social media add to my life and make it happier, however prolonged exposure ends with me having wasted time and probably lowered my mood. The goal of these discussions is to teach them how to self regulate. I’ve never found much success with imposing limits on screen time. I fail at it because I can’t stay consistent. I’ve done much better when I focus my energy on luring them out into non-screen activities, reminding them of the things they enjoy doing when screens are not available.

Ultimately the generation defined in the article is going to find its own way forward. They will be different from their Gen X parents, just as the Gen X generation was different from their Boomer parents. Right now they struggle less with addictions and teen pregnancy, but more from mental health issues. All life choices are trade offs and it is up to individuals to find their own balance in life.

2 comments to Teens, Screens, and Mental Health

  • Martin Bonner

    Complaining about “today’s delinquent youth” is not *exactly* a new phenomena. One of Socrates plays contains a passage satirizing it.

  • Austin Shackles

    Pretty sure every generation since we started counting has, once the next generation grew up enough to start doing their own thing, complained about the youth of today and what they get up to. I reckon it’s built-in…

    Having spent 20 years taking kids to school as a job (alas, no longer) about the only advice I would care to proffer is to never forget that you were once young and almost certainly gave your parents/teachers headaches just like your kids do to you – I firmly believe that “growing up” is a mistake, when it means that you stop doing crazy stuff just because you can. I doesn’t have to be the same crazy stuff*, but I fully intend to retain a mental age of about 18 forever 🙂

    * and indeed, I’m no longer at 51 capable of some of the stuff I used to do without care… mind you, I could lose weight and get fitter, or try harder to…

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