A dark side of technology: Smartphones, social media can adversely affect children's mental health
BRAINERD, Minn., — The ills of social media and smartphone use have been harped upon ad nauseum—often in some kind of anecdote picturing a bunch of teens around a table, noses firmly pressed into their phones, ignoring each other and oblivious to the world around them.
It can be a little disingenuous, but there is truth to the analogy—even if the truth is more abstract than literal. While on the surface the use of technology may seem social and fulfilling, the long-term effects of constant smartphone (and by virtue of that, social media) use are little understood, said Jack Hinrichs, a licensed therapist based out of New Brighton and the director of education and training for Nystrom & Associates LTD.
Though, he noted, the initial prognosis is bleak.
"It has a much bigger impact than we have any idea of, so far. We're just beginning to scratch the surface of the kind of impact it has," Hinrichs said. "From 2007 to 2015, the suicide rates doubled among teen girls and they went up among teen boys about 30 percent. Overall, they've gone up almost one-third, about 30 percent in the last seven or eight years."
These trends indicate a significant shift in 2012, per a study published by the academic journal Clinical Psychological Science in November. Complementing Hinrich's assessment, the report noted suicide attempts by teens aged 13-18 increased 33 percent between 2010 and 2015, with a sizable spike in 2012. While the typical teen stressors—such as homework burden or academic pressure, not to mention economic hardships—didn't see a notable change, smartphone usage crossed an eye-opening threshold: More than half of American teenagers had their hands on a smartphone that year. By 2015, that figure had climbed to 73 percent.
Adolescence, or primarily the teen years between 12-18, represents a time when most people are facing a "crisis" they must overcome to establish who they are and what their identity means to them on an emotional, psychological, physical and sexual understanding, Hinrichs said. People who struggle to overcome these obstacles and fail to establish a grounded sense of self are prone to mental health issues, some that are associated with suicide.
Social media: A counterfeit life
"Kids are hyper social at that age. They determine a lot of their self-worth from their friends, not their families of origin," Hinrichs said. "Social situations are really, really important."
Thus, it's natural for teenagers to gravitate toward smartphones and what they have to offer—social interaction and networking, instantaneously, at the touch of a button. While it may seem teenagers are forming connections and being more social than their parents ever were, Hinrichs said, the truth is constant smartphone and social media use creates a shallow sociability.
It is, as Hinrichs called it, a "deep-seated loneliness" that can deteriorate into full-blown depression and suicidal ideation if left unchecked.
Brainerd High School Principal Andrea Rusk noted kids often opt for text-based arguments, versus face-to-face conversations and resolutions. She deemed the ability to have a reasoned, mature discussion over disagreements as a social skill in decline. While teenagers may use social media as a way to connect with others, the effect is quite the opposite, said Jonah Macejkovic, a sophomore at Brainerd High School, who echoed Rusk's assessment.
"Small talk has been lost in our generation. It's now a rare gift for our generation than a more accessible skill," Macejkovic said. "This phone has put us in a cocoon where you can't read people's thoughts and faces and emotions as much. ... We think our phones are too necessary. They're a necessary evil sometimes."
Hinrichs said there are conversations underway among psychologists, therapists and psychiatrists regarding the viability of internet addiction, or essentially the dependence on the short loop, dopamine-driven bursts to social media, as a bonafide psychological condition.
"We live in a society where it's so hard to it put down. It's basically become a fifth arm or a fifth appendage. It's there—it's always next to us, always by us," said Devin Emslander, a sophomore at Brainerd High School.
Hinrichs said social media poses two main problems—one, the sheer amount of information and content bombards teens. This can lead to an overload of stimuli, causing near-constant stress and anxiety.
The second, Hinrichs said, is the interconnectivity of social media, which can be a two-edged sword. While one may be able to communicate and keep tabs on friends in larger and larger social circles, issues of envy and problems of false comparison and inadequacy can be amplified by the global scale of the arena.
"Now they're comparing themselves worldwide," Hinrichs concluded. "If they have any insecurities, the way they feel about themselves is magnified times 10 by the amount of information that is simply overwhelming."
Sites like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat only exacerbate the problem with their emphasis on visual presentation—a concept quickly warped by the doctored nature of images, Rusk added, where even the most honest profile pictures typically have some kind of filter.
"I do believe that kids are getting messages about media that are so different from the generation before them. One of the things that I think is really powerful is that there's a filter for every picture that a kid takes," Rusk said. "It's probably not an exaggeration to see a kid take 300 snapchats in a day. A person always looks more beautiful with a filter than face-to-face."
This "perfect storm," as Hinrichs termed it—the cumulative effect of overwhelming information, electronic addiction, and the distortion of social media, mixed with natural insecurities, self-doubt and anxiety—can create a fertile ground for mental illness and long-term struggles with self-image and self-worth. If intimacy is currency, then social media comes up short and, even more than that, the presentation of social networking is like fake money—a fraud, counterfeit.
Sociologists categorize a healthy, meaningful interaction as one when a person is heard, seen and feels valued, Hinrichs noted—crucial cornerstones of intimacy that just aren't present in text exchanges or social media posts, however much dopamine teenagers may glean from it. Often, the content of social media is raw information versus real interaction. It's the difference between knowing about someone and knowing someone.
That difference could be the dividing line between a relatively healthy mental state, or a downward spiral into a host of psychological issues, including clinical depression, body dysmorphia, or anxiety—all of which, contribute to the upward trend in suicides, Hinrichs said.
Supportive parental supervision, he added—which often comes down to monitoring what children are looking at and limiting their media consumption—can mitigate this in some ways.
The art of small talk
In terms of small talk becoming a "lost art," Hinrichs noted part-time jobs for teens, making a conscious effort to work on social skills to connect with other people and become comfortable, are not difficult goals and growth in this regard can be relatively quick.
Rusk said it's been a point of focus at Brainerd High School to "be present" and engage the people across from you—a concerted effort in part, Rusk added, to counteract shifting societal trends increasingly alienating people from each other, even from across the table.
For Rusk, she said it's a vital part of the school's education model that may not have been necessary for generations past, including her own. In short, it's inhibiting the social growth of students, she said, and they may be paralyzed contending with everyday problems or confrontations.
"Many of us grew up where we left the house and went away for a few hours to go play all day or until dark. Our kids can't get away from that for very long, nor do they know how to—where they can be independent or work through some conflict, or even work through a tough situation without calling Mom or texting Mom," Rusk said. "Sometimes the tools we're giving them to work through struggles is a phone and that may not be the best tool."
Noah Sundberg, a junior at Brainerd High School, said teachers form a spectrum of positions on the issue—with most predominantly falling into two camps, where some have a no tolerance policy for smartphone usage in the class and others freely allow it, so long as it doesn't bother other students.
The second position is based on the idea that students take responsibility for their decisions—good or bad, Sundberg noted, and it's this sense of personal responsibility that can spur teenagers to put the phone down and take a break from the cybersphere, for their mental health if nothing else.
"There's a sense that if you're not using your time fully, you're wasting time and that's developed with technology," Sundberg said. "When you put your phone down, and you put it down and actually have a conversation, you might feel stressed right way. But then when you've put it down for an hour, you're like, 'OK, I feel pretty good.'"
If in a crisis or in need of help -- or know of someone who is -- call the Crisis Line and Referral Services at 218-828-HELP (4357) or 800-462-5525. The Crisis Line is answered by local, trained volunteers 24 hours a day. It is a free, anonymous and confidential service.
TXT4Life is a free, 24-hour confidential crisis counseling service offered in Minnesota. TXT4Life allows texters to connect with trained counselors 24 hours a day. To text for free confidential help, text “Life” to 61222. Wait for a trained crisis counselor to respond.