Teens who spend more time on social media also spend more time with their friends in person, on average—highly social teens are more social in both venues, and less social teens are less so. They are on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed. The of eighth-graders who work for pay has been cut in half.
Of course, putting off the responsibilities of adulthood is not an iGen innovation. Millennials, for instance, are a highly individualistic generation, but individualism had been increasing since the Baby Boomers turned on, tuned in, and dropped out. Admittedly, 10 hours a week is a lot. Born between andmembers of this generation are growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet.
All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness. Depression and suicide have many causes; too much technology is clearly not the only one. But it was exactly the moment when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.
You might expect that teens spend so much time in these new spaces because it makes them happy, but most data suggest that it does not. Typically, the characteristics that come to define a generation appear gradually, and along a continuum.
Beliefs and behaviors that were already rising simply continue to do so. In an information economy that rewards higher education more than early work history, parents may be inclined to encourage their kids to stay home and study rather than to get a part-time job. To those of us who fondly recall a more analog adolescence, this may seem foreign and troubling. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone. Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. Childhood now stretches well into high school.
But eighth- 10th- and 12th-graders in the s actually spend less time on homework than Gen X teens did in the early s. Social-networking sites like Facebook promise to connect us to friends.
Shifts in the economy, and parenting, certainly play a role. Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones. So is depression. In this, too, she is typical. The drop is the sharpest for ninth-graders, among whom the of sexually active teens has been cut by almost 40 percent since The average teen now has had sex for the first time by the spring of 11th grade, a full year later than the average Gen Xer.
Fewer teens having sex has contributed to what many see as one of the most positive youth trends in recent years: The teen birth rate hit an all-time low indown 67 percent since its modern peak, in In conversation after conversation, teens described getting their as something to be nagged into by their parents—a notion that would have been unthinkable to generations. But the portrait of iGen teens emerging from the data is one of a lonely, dislocated generation.
Beginning with Millennials and continuing with iGen, adolescence is contracting again—but only because its onset is being delayed. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned.
She spent much of her summer keeping up with friends, but nearly all of it was over text or Snapchat. But those who spend six to nine hours a week on social media are still 47 percent more likely to say they are unhappy than those who use social media even less. The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs, and many of the distinctive characteristics of the Millennial generation began to disappear.
The time that seniors spend on activities such as student clubs and sports and exercise has changed little in recent years.
In the late s, 77 percent of high-school seniors worked for pay during the school year; by the mids, only 55 percent did. But recent research suggests that screen time, in particular social-media use, does indeed cause unhappiness.
They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. The decline in dating tracks with a decline in sexual activity.
I call them iGen. What happened in to cause such dramatic shifts in behavior? 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. Young Gen Xers were just about as likely to drive, drink alcohol, and date as young Boomers had been, and more likely to have sex and get pregnant as teens.
The opposite is true of in-person interactions. The of teens who get together with their friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40 percent from to ; the decline has been especially steep recently. But at the generational level, when teens spend more time on smartphones and less time on in-person social interactions, loneliness is more common.
Fifteen years later, during my own teenage years as a member of Generation X, smoking had lost some of its romance, but independence was definitely still in. A survey of more than 5, American teens found that three out of four owned an iPhone.
The shift is stunning: 12th-graders in were going out less often than eighth-graders did as recently as But only about 56 percent of high-school seniors in went out on dates; for Boomers and Gen Xers, the was about 85 percent. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes. One study asked college students with a Facebook to complete short surveys on their phone over the course of two weeks. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns.
As teens have started spending less time together, they have become less likely to kill one another, and more likely to kill themselves. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends.
In one, a shirtless teen stands with a large bottle of peppermint schnapps stuck in the waistband of his jeans. So what are they doing with all that time? Across a range of behaviors—drinking, dating, spending time unsupervised— year-olds now act more like year-olds used to, and year-olds more like year-olds.
In earlier eras, kids worked in great s, eager to finance their freedom or prodded by their parents to learn the value of a dollar. In another, a boy who looks no older than 12 poses with a cigarette in his mouth. High-school seniors headed for four-year colleges spend about the same amount of time on homework as their predecessors did.
Parenting styles continue to change, as do school curricula and culture, and these things matter. The experiences they have every day are radically different from those of the generation that came of age just a few years before them.
AroundI noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. 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. At first I pd these might be blips, but the trends persisted, across several years and a series of national surveys.
Some generational changes are positive, some are negative, and many are both. In all my analyses of generational data—some reaching back to the s—I had never seen anything like it. Gen Xers, in the s, were the first to postpone the traditional markers of adulthood. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear.
These declines accelerated during the Great Recession, but teen employment has not bounced back, even though job availability has. Combined with the decline in working for pay, this means iGen teens have more leisure time than Gen X teens did, not less.
Infor the first time in 24 years, the teen suicide rate was higher than the teen homicide rate. The could not be clearer: Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time free average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy. The Monitoring the Future survey, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and deed to be nationally representative, has asked 12th-graders more than 1, questions every year since and queried eighth- and 10th-graders since The survey asks teens how happy they are and also how much of their leisure time they spend on various activities, including nonscreen activities such as in-person social interaction and exercise, and, in recent years, screen activities such as using social media, texting, and browsing the web.
These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her position she likes to do with her sex. Gen X managed to stretch adolescence beyond all limits: Its members started becoming adults earlier and finished becoming adults later. It was after the Great Recession, which officially lasted from to and had a starker effect on Millennials trying to find a place in a sputtering economy. But as they left their teenage years behind, Gen Xers married and started careers later than their Boomer predecessors had.
Once again, the air of screen activities is unmistakable: The more time teens spend looking at screens, the Atlantic likely they are to report symptoms of depression.
Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide, such as making a suicide plan. T he 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.
Even when a seismic event—a war, a technological leap, a free concert in the mud—plays an outsize role in shaping a group of young people, no single factor ever defines a generation. O ne day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent, while those who play sports, go to religious services, or even do homework more than the average teen cut their risk ificantly.
The rink was a place where kids could get away from their parents and inhabit a world of their own, a world where they could drink, smoke, and make out in the backs of their cars. I had grown accustomed to line graphs of trends that looked like modest hills and valleys.