By Thierry Malleret, economist
By Thierry Malleret, economist

The necessity to be more proactive in terms of policies addressing mental illness (that has such a strong and immediate bearing on well-being) finds an echo in recent academic papers and books written by psychologists. In particular, Jean Twenge, a professor who’s been researching generational differences for 25 years, argues that today’s teens are shaped to such an extent by the smartphone and social media that she calls them the “iGen.” She makes the claim, based on an impressive amount of data and surveys, that the iGen is on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades and that much of this deterioration can be traced to their smartphones, the impact of which has not yet been fully recognized.

It goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans; smartphones have radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. Simply put: the more time teens spend looking at their screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression. For a variety of reasons, girls bear the brunt of depressive symptoms among today’s teens. Boys’ depressive symptoms increased by 21 percent from 2012 to 2015, while girls’ increased by 50 percent—more than twice as much.

As Dr. Twenge notes: “Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on non-screen activities are more likely to be happy.” What follows is pretty straightforward: “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.”

This issue of what our smartphones do to us is bound to gain more prominence over the months and years to come. Tristan Harris, a former product manager at Google whose critique of the big platforms has gone viral, accuses them of “hijacking our minds.” He explains how Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Snapchat and others manipulate our attention to keep us hooked to our screen for as long and as frequently as possible. In the meantime, recent research shows that the mere presence of one’s own smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity. So, all in all, digital detox as a wellness offering has a bright future!

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