By Michael Smerconish | January 10, 2018
The kids might not be alright.
At least, that’s the case according to one of Apple’s biggest investors and California’s teachers. A few days ago, Jana Partners, which has $2 billion invested in Apple, and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System wrote to Apple’s board of directors asking that they investigate the effects of digital technology on young people. In their public letter, they wrote, “By [examining these effects], we believe Apple would once again be playing a pioneering role, this time by setting an example about the obligations of technology companies to their youngest customers. As a company that prides itself on values like inclusiveness, quality education, environmental protection, and supplier responsibility, Apple would also once again be showcasing the innovative spirit that made you the most valuable public company in the world.”
To emphasize that Apple needs to intervene, the letter cites the work of Jean Twenge, Ph.D., a professor in personality psychology at San Diego State University. Last year, Twenge published a book on technology and teens: 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. After reading the book and interviewing Dr. Twenge for both SiriusXM radio and CNN, I said that I thought her book was the most impactful I read in 2017.
Twenge has studied generational differences for 25 years and is widely published in her field. Her most recent research notes that in 2012 – when the proportion of Americans who own smartphones first exceeded 50% – there were abrupt, and quite negative, changes in teen behavior and emotional states.
“On these big surveys there are six questions that asked about loneliness, including, ‘How often do you feel lonely?’ and, ‘How often do you feel left out?’ And the responses show that same pattern of mental health not having done much, or even gotten a little bit better, until 2007,” she told me. “Then they start to tick up, and in 2012 those feelings of loneliness and feeling left out shoot upward. And that, of course, is maybe due to social media, where teens can see everything that their friends are doing that they didn’t get invited to.”
This loneliness touches all parts of young people’s lives: our kids have sex less (which on its own might sound like a good thing), spend time with friends less frequently, date less, drive less, and sleep less. And loneliness isn’t the only mental health trend on the rise. Teen suicide and depression have skyrocketed since 2012.
Professor Twenge refers to this new generation of teens as “iGen.” While Millennials were raised with internet access, they were not constantly connected. Young people in iGen, those born between 1995 and 2012, are different. They have been raised with constant connectivity; they have never known a world without smart phones. My biggest take away from Twenge’s work is that today’s teens might think they are closer to classmates than their elders were, but in reality, they have virtual relationships and lack real, human connections.
Twenge worries that unaddressed, the situation might actually get worse. She told me, “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones. It’s not just the technology, I should stress, it’s really the social media, which is the most common risk they are facing.”
Fortunately, she says that there are small changes we can make to young people’s screen time that don’t involve getting rid of the technology entirely. First, she says that the effects of screens on young people’s health seem to appear after more than two hours of use per day (although more than one hour per day also has an effect). Second, limiting young people’s social media to one medium – Snapchat, in her daughters’ case – can limit the social pressures young people navigate at all times of day.
Now, to be clear, Dr. Twenge never claims screen use causes these mental health challenges. But the correlation is indisputable. Everywhere I go, I see whole families out to dinner, scrolling through their phones instead of talking to one another. One person’s glance at an iPhone is like a yawn – everyone suddenly mimics it.
These observations bring me back to the letter from JANA Investors and California’s retired teachers. In the letter, they cite the following data points:
- Professor Twenge’s research shows that U.S. teenagers who spend 3 hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35% more likely, and those who spend 5 hours or more are 71% more likely, to have a risk factor for suicide than those who spend less than 1 hour.
- This research also shows that 8thgraders who are heavy users of social media have a 27% higher risk of depression, while those who exceed the average time spent playing sports, hanging out with friends in person, or doing homework have a significantly lower risk. Experiencing depression as a teenager significantly increases the risk of becoming depressed again later in life.
- Also, teens who spend 5 or more hours a day (versus less than 1) on electronic devices are 51% more likely to get less than 7 hours of sleep (versus the recommended 9). Sleep deprivation is linked to long-term issues like weight gain and high blood pressure.
We’re right to be suspicious as to whether Apple itself is best suited to investigate this situation. But I like the JANA and CalSTRS suggestion that an expert committee be formed to examine this potential crisis – and that it include Dr. Twenge!