It feels impossible to tell if the technology our kids use should be celebrated or feared. I intended the book to teach startups how to build healthy habits, but now I’m not so sure. According to Twenge’s article, the teen suicide rate is now higher than the teen homicide rate, with three times as many 12-to-14-year-old girls and twice as many boys killing themselves in 2015 as in 2007. However, there might be other factors at play that account for the change in the town’s ice cream eating. It’s true that in Twenge’s study, social media exposure was correlated with depressive symptoms in some adolescents. If you were to guess how much social media use accounted for an increase in depression in Twenge’s study, what would you expect? 80 percent of the correlation? According to an article in Wired, in Twenge’s study, “Social media exposure could explain 0.36 percent of the covariance for depressive symptoms.”3 That’s not 36 percent. For one, if we’re going to draw correlations between social media and bad things like depressive symptoms and suicide, shouldn’t we also look at the positive trends as well? However, when you interact with others’ posts — commenting, posting, and liking — studies have found your well-being increases and you feel more connected to people you care about.15 “I think there’s lot of good stuff,” admits Odiaga, the nurse practitioner and concerned mother who asks kids about tech use at their annual physicals.
It feels impossible to tell if the technology our kids use should be celebrated or feared. A few years ago I wrote a book, Hooked, about how technology can be used to change our habits. I intended the book to teach startups how to build healthy habits, but now I’m not so sure. With headlines telling us technology is hijacking our brains, I started second guessing the impact of our devices, especially when it comes to our kids.
How alarmed should we be? Is this a crisis or a fear frenzy? I wanted to understand what the studies really tell us about the effect personal technology is having on our children.
One side clearly believes the kids are not okay. “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades,” wrote Dr. Jean Twenge, a professor of Psychology at San Diego State University in an article inThe Atlantic.1 “Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”
According to the tech critics like Twenge, this generation can’t look each other in the eye, isn’t comfortable in conversation, and therefore can’t form deep relationships. They are cyberbullied, like-obsessed, and more prone to killing themselves, she says. According to Twenge’s article, the teen suicide rate is now higher than the teen homicide rate, with three times as many 12-to-14-year-old girls and twice as many boys killing themselves in 2015 as in 2007.
Jan Odiaga, Program Director of the Pediatric Primary Care Nurse Practitioner Program at Rush University College of Nursing, says she now asks kids questions about technology use at their annual physicals. Odiaga is a mother of two daughters, ages 14 and 16. “It is an epidemic. I think the thing that scares me the most is that there’s so many mental health issues, depression and anxiety,” Odiaga says. “People are tracking it back to social pressures and social media. That frightens me. I think it’s going to escalate and get worse… What’s going to happen next?”
As a father of a pre-teen myself, I worry. It’s easy to get worked up about what technology might be doing to kids’ brains. However, there is also an argument to be made that it’s the adults, and not the teens, being overly dramatic.
What the Studies Really Say
Studies like Twenge’s work like this: researchers look for correlations between various things to try and make connections. If thing A and thing B go up over the same period of time, researchers conclude there may be something there.
For example, if Ivan the ice cream man opens a new ice cream shop and subsequently sales of ice cream in the town rise, one might conclude that the store opening was correlated with more ice cream consumption. Taking this one step further, some might believe the store caused people to eat more ice cream.
However, there might be other factors at play that account for the change in the town’s ice cream eating. If Ivan opened his ice cream shop in the heat of June, rather than cold of December, then we might wonder whether the weather had something to do with the rise in sales. Variables, like the weather, could affect the rise in sales of ice cream as might the opening of Ivan’s shop. Ivan’s shop could have driven more ice cream consumption, but we wouldn’t know how much Ivan’s ice cream shop accounted for the change unless we excluded other variables, such as the temperature outdoors.
It’s true that in Twenge’s study, social media exposure was correlated with depressive symptoms in some adolescents. But there’s much, much more to the story than Twenge and most journalists who covered the study let on.
Firstly, there are many potential variables that correlate with adolescent depression. Household income, parental education, and family history all play a role, just as the weather plays a role in ice cream consumption. If you were to guess how much social media use accounted for an increase in depression in Twenge’s study, what would you expect? The study was cited hundreds of times in news outlets around the world, which ran headlines like, “The Risk Of Teen Depression And Suicide Is Linked To Smartphone Use, Study Says.2” What would you guess? 80 percent of the correlation? 70 percent? Not even close.
According to an article in Wired, in Twenge’s study, “Social media exposure could explain 0.36 percent of the covariance for depressive symptoms.”3
That’s not 36 percent. It’s not even one percent. That’s 0.36 percent.
The Wired article continues, “That 0.36 percent means that 99.64 percent of the group’s depressive symptoms had nothing to do with social media use.” The article quotes Dr. Andrew Przybylski, who the author describes as, “a psychologist at the Oxford Internet Institute with more than a decade’s experience studying the impact of technology.” He told Wired, “I have the data set they used open in front of me and I submit to you that, based on that same data set, eating potatoes has the exact same negative effect on depression.”
Furthermore, even that weak correlation “didn’t hold for the boys in the dataset,” only the girls. Why not? Nobody knows. “In datasets as large as these, it’s easy for weak correlation signals to emerge from the noise,” the Wired article author concluded.
In a rebuttal to The Atlantic article that said kids are…