Technology isn’t killing your teenager

I’ve been asked many, many times to respond to Jean Twenge’s borish, dystopian view on teenagers and technology widely shared over the summer in her piece in The Atlantic, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?

You need to know that even though what she’s saying is popular among parents and even though you might read it and nod your head in agreement– there are serious questions about her research coming from people far more  serious about the study of teenagers and technology than I.

In other words, it’s one thing to tickle the ears to alarm well-meaning parents. But is it true?

A growing number of people are calling B.S.

I won’t steal the thunder of Sarah Rose Cavanagh completely. But here’s her three counter-punches offered in the August edition of Psychology Today, “No, Smartphones Are Not Destroying a Generation.”

  1. the data the author chooses to present are cherry-picked, by which I mean she reviews only those studies that support her idea and ignores [other] studies [In Christian terminology we’d say she’s proof texting. Just like in teaching the Bible, that’s sloppy.]
  2. the studies she reviews are all correlational, meaning that the researchers merely observed associations between certain variables (e.g., smartphone use and depression). [Meaning she’s not offering any actual research of her own, just putting Study A from one place together with Study B from another to try to link teenagers adoption of cell phones with increased reports of depression. She didn’t actually conduct a real study to prove that link though.]
  3. the studies she reviews largely ignore social contexts and how people differ, instead reporting only average effects and correlations. [Again, her methodology creates big problems.]

But Is It True? Is Jean Twenge telling the truth….?

Earlier I wrote, “it’s one thing to tickle the ears to alarm well-meaning parents. But is it true?This is particularly relevant because this isn’t Jean Twenge’s first time selling a dystopian view of teenagers later questioned by academics wondering about the validity of her work.

Her first major foray into millennial thinkery was her 2006 book Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — And More Miserable Than Ever Before. Twenge expanded on the theme in 2009 with The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.

These books pandered to the same complaints old people have been making about young people since time immemorial, with just enough techno-scare to make them seem fresh and relevant. And they established Twenge as a go-to quote factory for cranky thinkpieces on millennials, ushering in a new wave of hand wringing over our supposed shortcomings.

Ignore The Bullshit: iPhones Are Not Destroying Teenagers, Elizabeth Nolan Brown, Buzzfeed – August 2017

See, this isn’t the first time Twenge has sold this brand of correlation research to ears eager to hear scary things about teenagers. (e.g. Not her actual research but correlating, threading unrelated studies together to draw conclusions) In other words this is her schtick. It’s what she does. She scares old people about young people.

Don’t fall for it. It just makes you look old and out of touch. Old people have been spreading these types of dystopian views on teenagers forever.

Back to the Main Point, McLane

So, this is what she does. But is she telling the truth on this topic? Are smartphones somehow destroying the lives of teenagers today?

Of course not.

Social media psychologist Amy Orben looks at the same data and comes to a different set of conclusions:

While Twenge finds a link between social media use and depressive symptoms, this link is very small. Social media use only explains 0.36% of the covariance for girl’s depressive symptoms; less than half a percent of the depressive symptoms a female student reports can be predicted by knowing how much social media use she reports. 99.64% of her depressive symptoms have nothing to do with social media use.

Twenge’s paper fails to account for many other factors that could have lead to an increase in adolescents’ depressive symptoms in the past decade. Teens can suffer because of their parents economic situation, bereavement or stress about examinations or the future. Furthermore, the public discourse around mental health has changed, leading to differences in diagnosis and increasing levels of confidence about sharing mental health issues.

We need more good quality, open and replicable science before we can start making grand claims about social media’s effects. Great claims require great evidence – and great evidence has not yet been found.

Social Media and Suicide: A Critical Appraisal, Amy Orben, Medium – November 2017

See, it might sound good. There might even be some truth in it. But no one has found real links between your teenager looking at their phone all the time and depression. It might exist but it also might not exist.

We just don’t know.

I think there is universal understanding that increased smartphone usage among all age demographics (not just the easy-to-malign American teenager) is changing us– and there are serious questions worthy of study on both the positive and negative impact of those changes. But we must remain cautious of falling prey to things that tickle our ears.

Into our heartfelt desire to understand how these things are impacting us we cannot allow well-worn Get Off My Lawn narratives sneak in. Our young are far too valuable to malign.

Want to Know What IS Destroying a Generation?

Labeling an entire generation of young people generationally is demeaning to the personhood of each individual teenager. I would encourage you to stop labeling and generalizing and start getting to know the actual teenagers in your life. They aren’t ____ or _____ based on some pop culture psychobabble you read on BuzzFeed. They are real life human beings who should be respected as fully formed, fully real children of God.


Want to learn more about how social media has changed my life, family, and marriage as well as healthy, non-scary boundaries we practice from a Christian perspective? Check out my book Tuning In: Six Ways to Reclaim Your Life from Technology

Published by Adam McLane

Adam McLane is a partner at The Youth Cartel, co-author of A Parent's Guide to Understanding Social Media, blogger of 10+ years, and a fan of all things San Diego State University Aztecs.

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