The pocket pacifier – Family & Society
In interviews with 100 girls from ages 12 to19 and their mothers, author and therapist Mary Pipher heard teens repeatedly say they couldn’t live without their smartphones, but they didn’t like their lives with them, either.
“After an evening online, I go to bed feeling unhappy,” a 13-year-old named Izzie said. “I wonder, ‘What did I do all day long?’ Then I wake up and do the same things the next day.”
Pipher wrote Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls 25 years ago and recently set out to update her bestselling book with the help of her daughter, Sara Pipher Gilliam. The pair found that smartphones play a pivotal role in the rising rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide among today’s teens.
Young Americans are the “unwitting guinea pigs in today’s huge, unplanned experiment with social media,” with teenage girls “bearing much of the brunt,” Pipher and Gilliam wrote in The Wall Street Journal. The mother and daughter found said teenage girls today are studious and fond of their families but also risk-averse, anxious, solitary, and homebound. They linked the results to increasing time spent on social media instead of investing in real-life relationships.
But some experts dispute that storyline. A team of researchers at Oxford University in England published three papers this year arguing against a link between social media use and teen mental health issues. “A teenagers’ technology use can only explain less than 1 percent of variation in well-being,” lead author Amy Orben told NPR late last month, adding whether a teenager wears glasses was a better indicator of well-being.
Orben said she thought other factors such as economic anxiety, political upheaval, or teens’ growing comfort with discussing personal challenges could explain the negative trend in mental health.
But San Diego State University psychology professor Jean M. Twenge took issue with Orben’s research in a rebuttal published by the Institute for Family Studies.
“When presented accurately, it’s very clear that adolescents are suffering from more mental health issues than they were 10 years ago, and that these increases began in the age of the smartphone and ubiquitous social media,” wrote Twenge. “Hospital admissions for self-harm, self-poisoning, and suicide attempts have also increased since 2010, and these trends in behaviors can’t be explained away by self-report tendencies on surveys, and neither can the increase in completed suicides.”
Melissa Winston, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Shelterwood, a therapeutic boarding school for at-risk teens, said the connection between smartphones and mental health is clear.
“There is seriously no doubt in my mind … that there is not just a link, but an absolute direct correlation, between time on technology and mental health diagnosis in kids,” said Winston. She added that teens today have a constant pacifier in their phone, a device that enables them to be relentlessly entertained, distracted, and lulled, but leaves them with a low tolerance for distress and discomfort, which leads to anxiety and depression. The problem, according to Winston, is that pain is part of life: “And if we cannot tolerate pain, we cannot tolerate life.”
Shelterwood restricts its residents’ access to technology, so Winston said new students have to adjust to not being able to turn to their phone for a quick dopamine hit. They often exhibit symptoms similar to a person coming down from drugs. “They do not know what to do with themselves,” said Winston. “They sleep all the time, they’re depressed, they don’t know how to talk to people, they are irritated at everything. … They cannot tolerate being alone with their own thoughts.”
But the discomfort helps teens because it points them to the reality that God designed them for things smartphones displace, like silence, eye contact, and face-to-face interactions, said Winston. She also said giving up phones shows teens the counterfeit quality of a “tech high,” and the truth that the only place they can assuredly find safety and significance is in God.
Winston encourages parents to walk alongside their kids in learning how to manage technology. She compares handing a new iPhone to a teenager to asking an infant to ride a bike.
Winston just gave her 13-year-old son his first smartphone, but it has no internet, social media, or games—things she said would train him to use it as a pacifier. “It’s a communication device,” said Winston. “That’s what the phone is for.”