Smartphone Addiction Poses Dire Mental Health Risks to Young Adults

Cellphones have become an appendage of sorts and for teens it is the epicenter of their social lives. You probably have or know a child who stares into a screen incessantly. Since the early 2010s, a lot has been said about the impact of technology and social media on the development of teens. But a recent study from The Harris Poll reports a renewed concern amongst adults about digital devices adversely affecting the social development of young adults.

Based on our data, we found that nine in ten parents with a minor agree that growing technology use has insidious consequences on teenagers. The survey revealed that 80 percent of adults agree that social networks are creating an identity crisis in young adults. From Instagram to Snapchat, Americans are increasingly alarmed by the links between social media platforms and depression and alienation in teens.  

Even tech gurus concur. Only last week, Apple CEO Tim Cook told students at Harlow College in the U.K. that he did not believe in the overuse of technology.

“I don’t have a kid, but I have a nephew that I put some boundaries on,” Cook said. “There are some things that I won’t allow; I don’t want them on a social network.”

“What we’re seeing among young adults is a disconnect between their offline selves and the habits and opinions they form in digital ecosystems,” said John Gerzema, CEO of The Harris Poll. “Let’s not forget, these are young people with malleable minds and we’re yet to understand the long-term developmental side effects of them being a “mobile-first” generation.

“The challenge for parents is incorporating the benefits of learning via technology with the possible harmful effects in cognition, overall health and social skills,” he says.

This Harris Poll surveyed over 2,000 adults over the age of 18 between December 27 and 29, 2017. Our findings complement those of Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, whose 2017 study uncovers a direct correlation between phone use and depression and suicide in Gen Zers or—as Twenge calls them—the iGen. Twenge’s statistical portrait revealed that, owing to excessive use of technology, teenagers were less likely to hang out with friends, date, have sex, or even sleep well.

“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,” she says. “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades.”

Two big Apple shareholders, Jana Partners LLC and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, are partnering with Twenge in a campaign to urge Apple to tackle youth phone addiction. The investors proposed a list of actions Apple can take, such as creating new software tools that will allow parents control and restrict phone use more easily and hiring child development specialists like Twenge to study the impact of smartphone overuse on teens and children.

By taking these steps, Apple would be setting an example about the obligations of technology companies to their youngest customers, the shareholders said in an open letter to Apple earlier this month.

“In the case of Apple, we believe the long-term health of its youngest customers and the health of society, our economy, and the Company itself, are inextricably linked,” they wrote. “In fact, we believe that addressing this issue now will enhance long-term value for all shareholders, by creating more choices and options for your customers today and helping to protect the next generation of leaders, innovators, and customers tomorrow.”