This synchronized global increase in teenage loneliness suggests a global cause, and the timing is right for smartphones and social media to be major contributors. But couldn’t the timing just be coincidental? To test our hypothesis, we sought data on many global trends that might have an impact on teenage loneliness, including declines in family size, changes in G.D.P., rising income inequality and increases in unemployment, as well as more smartphone access and more hours of internet use. The results were clear: Only smartphone access and internet use increased in lock step with teenage loneliness. The other factors were unrelated or inversely correlated.
These analyses don’t prove that smartphones and social media are major causes of the increase in teenage loneliness, but they do show that several other causes are less plausible. If anyone has another explanation for the global increase in loneliness at school, we’d love to hear it.
We have carried out an extensive review of the published research on social media and mental health, and we have found a major limitation: Nearly all of it, including our own, looks for effects of consumption on the individuals doing the consuming. The most common scientific question has been: Do individual teens who consume a lot of social media have worse health outcomes than individual teens who consume little? The answer is yes, particularly for girls.
We believe, however, that this framework is inadequate because smartphones and social media don’t just affect individuals, they affect groups. The smartphone brought about a planetary rewiring of human interaction. As smartphones became common, they transformed peer relationships, family relationships and the texture of daily life for everyone — even those who don’t own a phone or don’t have an Instagram account. It’s harder to strike up a casual conversation in the cafeteria or after class when everyone is staring down at a phone. It’s harder to have a deep conversation when each party is interrupted randomly by buzzing, vibrating “notifications.” As Sherry Turkle wrote in her book “Reclaiming Conversation,” life with smartphones means “we are forever elsewhere.”
A year before the Covid-19 pandemic began, a Canadian college student sent one of us an email that illustrates how smartphones have changed social dynamics in schools. “Gen Z are an incredibly isolated group of people,” he wrote. “We have shallow friendships and superfluous romantic relationships that are mediated and governed to a large degree by social media.” He then reflected on the difficulty of talking to his peers:
There is hardly a sense of community on campus and it’s not hard to see why. Often I’ll arrive early to a lecture to find a room of 30+ students sitting together in complete silence, absorbed in their smartphones, afraid to speak and be heard by their peers. This leads to further isolation and a weakening of self-identity and confidence, something I know because I’ve experienced it.
All young mammals play, especially those that live in groups like dogs, chimpanzees and humans. All such mammals need tens of thousands of social interactions to become socially competent adults. In 2012 it was possible to believe that teens would get those interactions via their smartphones — far more of them, perhaps. But as data accumulates that teenage mental health has changed for the worse since 2012, it now appears that electronically mediated social interactions are like empty calories. Just imagine what teenagers’ health would be like today if we had taken 50 percent of the most nutritious food out of their diets in 2012 and replaced those calories with sugar.
So what can we do? We can’t turn back time to the pre-smartphone era, nor would we want to, given the many benefits of the technology. But we can take some reasonable steps to help teens get more of what they need.