The New York Times published an op-ed written by a psychiatrist who says the link between technology and teenage anxiety is a myth. “There is little evidence of an epidemic of anxiety disorders in teenagers,” Dr. Richard A. Friedman wrote. “We hear a lot these days that modern digital technology is rewiring the brains of our teenagers, making them anxious, worried, and unable to focus. Things are really not this dire.”
While Dr. Friedman is correct that there are plenty of other factors besides technology use that can lead to mental health issues, addiction to phones remains a major concern, for adolescents as well as other demographics.
Recent studies have shown that as society’s daily tech use has increased, so have our mental health problems — especially among adolescents. Aside from the attention deficit and cognitive impacts, excessive screen time has revealed a worrisome upsurge in adolescent depression, eating disorders, generalized anxiety — even a rise in suicide rates.
“It’s a nuanced issue, and it’s not a simple one,” says Dr. Sarah Domoff, Ph.D., a clinical child psychologist who specializes in children’s media use and problematic media use in adolescents. “The relationship between phone use and adolescence is not clear cut, but while we’re just scratching the surface, there is evidence that device use can be anxiety-provoking for teens.”
Dr. Domoff is the director of The Family Health Lab at Central Michigan University, where she leads a team of professionals in finding proactive approaches to problematic adolescent tech use. Her team has found that timing of tech use and the content itself are both significant factors. “The research shows us that if you’re using your phone at night and you’re preoccupied with content on your phone, it can interfere with your ability to fall asleep, just like having distressing emotions can interfere with your ability to fall asleep,” Domoff notes. “Once you start interfering with sleep quantity and quality, we know that interferes with our cognitive functioning and our mental health.” Domoff also says that the content itself makes a difference. “If you’re seeing content that is anxiety-provoking, that content matters,” she explains. “In addition to when they’re using phones, we know that certain interactions online can associate with more potential health symptoms.”
Finally, Domoff points out that who is most at risk is where the science gets complicated, and that’s where experts tend to overgeneralize. “We need to uncover what traits and qualities could make certain teens more susceptible to the negative impacts of social media, and how it disrupts their functioning,” she explains. “We do know that there is an association between phone use and mental health concerns, but it might be stronger for people that are at higher risk already.”
While there is still more research to be done, Domoff is confident in the current science that links tech use to anxiety, and she says that instead of brushing it off, we need to be diving deeper into the problem, and even taking a preventive approach — being particularly mindful about the age at which children receive devices. After all, Americans are now spending almost 50% of their day on electronic devices, according to the first-quarter 2018 Nielsen Total Audience Report, and with depression becoming the leading cause of disability worldwide, we simply can’t afford to dismiss this issue as general teenage angst.
In his op-ed, Dr. Friedman says that “the myth of an epidemic of anxiety disorder rooted in a generation’s overexposure to digital technology reveals an exaggerated idea about just how open to influence our brains really are.” And while he may be correct in saying that not all teenage angst is symptomatic of anxiety, claiming that this epidemic is an “exaggeration” undermines not only the scale of the problem, but of mental health concerns overall.
Whether you’re a parent of a teen in the digital age or you’re just looking to unplug for your own well-being every now and then, try these Microsteps to help you do so:
1. Make unplugging into a dinner game
The phone stacking game usually warrants a few groans from around the table, but it will help encourage lively conversation and will help everyone at dinner unplug and be present, even if it’s just for half an hour. Whether you’re meeting friends for dinner or sitting down with your kids after school, challenge everyone to put their phones in the middle of the table. Whoever looks at their phone first picks up the check — or does an extra chore around the house!
2. Set bedroom boundaries with devices
Our phones are repositories of everything we need to put away to allow us to sleep — our to-do lists, our inboxes, and our problems. Disconnecting from the digital world will help you sleep better, deeply recharge, and reconnect to your wisdom and creativity. Take the initiative to put away your phone 30 minutes before bed, and don’t check social media first thing in the morning.
3. If you’re struggling, ask for help
Never feel like your concern isn’t serious enough to ask for help. And don’t fall victim to the “hero mentality,” feeling like you have to do everything yourself. That’s a recipe for stress and burnout. Instead, speak to a professional, or someone you trust, about any anxious feelings you may be having. Whether it’s directly tech-related or not, your feelings deserve to be heard, and it’s OK if you can’t vocalize them perfectly.