In this post, Vicky Rideout responds to the latest issue of The Atlantic which features an article linking teenage suicide to smartphone use. Vicky argues that to interpret the relationship between those two trends as causal is to misuse existing data. Presenting data that she gathered in a Common Sense Media nationally-representative survey, Vicky shows the nuance and complexity of the relationship between teen depression and smartphone use, urging against hasty conclusions. Vicky is the founder of VJR Consulting, which specialises in high-quality research on youth and media. [Header image credit: Y. Fabio, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Jean Twenge’s provocative recent article in The Atlantic asks ‘Have smartphones destroyed a generation?‘ The piece has already generated a lot of dialogue, with plenty of commenters responding with a resounding ‘No‘.  It’s easy to pick on an article with an alarmist headline like that; but it’s not just the title at issue in this case.  In the piece, Twenge writes that ‘It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen [her moniker for those born between 1995 and 2012] as being on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades.  Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones’. That’s quite a statement.

Twenge is right to be concerned about the mental health of adolescents.  Depression and suicide among young people have increased notably.  According to data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the proportion of 12- to 17-year-olds that experienced a major depressive episode within the previous year grew from 9% in 2004 to 12.5% in 2015.  The CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report this week documented an increase in suicide among 15- to 19-year-olds between 2007 and 2015 – from 10.8 to 14.2 per 100,000 among teen boys and from 2.4 to 5.1 per 100,000 among teen girls.  These are disturbing and alarming trends.

But the suggestion that getting teens to put down their phones would have a meaningful effect on this mental health challenge is overly simplistic; indeed, it could serve as a dangerous distraction from the hard work that needs to happen in adolescent mental health.  Twenge writes that surveys have shown correlations between high smartphone and social media use and increased likelihood of suicide or depression.  But correlations like that – while intriguing, important and worthy of further study – are certainly far from indicating a causal link, or which direction causality might flow.

Giving lip service to the difference between correlations and causality, as Twenge does at several points, is not enough. ‘Of course, these analyses don’t unequivocally prove that screen time causes unhappiness’, she writes (her emphasis).  ‘[I]t’s possible that unhappy teens spend more time online’.  In fact, the analyses she refers to don’t prove causality at all, let alone unequivocally.  At another point Twenge writes that ‘Depression and suicide have many causes; too much technology is clearly not the only one’. In fact, we don’t know (at least from the evidence she presents) that it is a cause at all.

The distinction between correlation and causation is not a mere technicality to acknowledge before moving on to a pre-ordained conclusion; it is fundamental to a correct interpretation of the work (as Sonia Livingstone and many others have argued before). It is in fact entirely possible that unhappy teens choose to spend more time with screen media than their peers do, rather than that heavy screen media use is causing unhappiness.  Indeed, it is possible that some forms of screen media use help teens who suffer from depression, connecting them to family, friends, and resources.  The fact that there is a relationship between heavy social media use and depression may mean that social media use is contributing to teens’ depression; but it truly could mean that teens who are depressed are turning to social media for help, or distraction, or validation.  It could also mean that teens who are growing up in homes without much parental attention are more likely to be heavy screen media users and are more likely to be depressed.  Saying the evidence doesn’t ‘unequivocally’ prove a link or that too much technology isn’t the ‘only cause’ of depression and suicide among teens is wholly inadequate to a deeper understanding of the issue.

There are valid – indeed important – reasons to explore the relationship between mental health and various types of screen media use.  But by papering over the need for causal evidence, Twenge could actually obscure important information and insights about teens’ well-being.

My own research has touched on these issues over the years.  One study I conducted in 2012 for Common Sense Media, titled Social media, Social life, surveyed a nationally-representative sample of more than 1,000 13- to 17-year-olds in the US about how their use of social media made them feel.  Overall, 5% of teens said social networking made them feel more depressed, while 10% said it made them less depressed (the rest said it didn’t make a difference one way or the other).

In analyzing the data, we explored the possibility that unhappy teens might react to social media differently; perhaps these more at-risk youth were more likely to have a negative response to social media.  About 10% of our respondents said that the statement ‘I am often sad or depressed’ was either ‘somewhat’ or ‘a lot’ like them and that ‘I am happy with life’ was not like them.  So we took a closer look at this group and found that among less-happy teens, 18% said using social media made them feel more depressed, 13% said it made them feel less depressed, and the rest said it didn’t make much difference either way—not an overwhelming condemnation of social media.

At the same time, there were real differences in how the two groups responded emotionally to social media, both positively and negatively.  Our findings showed that teens who had described themselves as less happy were more likely to report that social media had a significant impact on how they felt than teens who described themselves as happier. For example:

  • 18% of these less-happy teens said social media made them feel more depressed, whereas only one-half of one percent of the happiest teens said the same
  • 34% of the less happy teens said social media made them feel more popular, compared to 15% of the happiest teens
  • 50% of less happy teens thought that social media made them more outgoing, as compared with 17% of happiest teens
  • 14% of less happy teens thought social media made them less popular, compared with only 1% of happy teens

So, as danah boyd might say, it’s complicated.

I have no interest in down-playing the possible influence of media on adolescents’ social and emotional well-being, and there have been thoughtful pieces in this space and others that take on that issue (Lisa Guernsey’s response to Twenge in Slate is another).  I have dedicated the past 25 years of my life to exploring media use among children and teens precisely because I believe it is important.  But I also believe its role in young people’s lives needs to be explored objectively and responsibly.  Suggesting that the increase in teen suicide and depression ‘can be traced to their phones’ does not seem like a responsible interpretation of the available data.

This post gives the views of the authors and does not represent the position of the LSE Parenting for a Digital Future blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.