The Phone in the Room

Digital technology has caused the biggest changes to teenage life in many decades. Typical American teenagers spend about half of their waking hours on their smartphones. They are on the phones when they are alone at home and when they are hanging out with friends.

When I compare my own teenage years in the 1980s with those of my parents in the 1950s and ’60s, I realize how much more rapidly habits have changed in the past 15 years than in the previous 50 years. My teenage experiences and those of my parents weren’t all that different. We talked on the telephone, drove cars, watched movies, went to parties and so on. My children’s social rhythms look much different.

This transformation has surely had broader consequences. To put it another way, if there have been major swings in teenage well-being over the past 15 years — good or bad — we should assume that the reshaping of life by digital technology has helped cause them.

Of course, there have been major swings in teenage well-being. By many measures, teen mental health has deteriorated, especially for girls, since about 2008. The suicide rate for girls and boys began rising around then. Feelings of loneliness and sadness began rising, too. The amount of time teenagers spend socializing in person has declined. So has sleep. “Young people are telling us that they are in crisis,” Kathleen Ethier, a top C.D.C. official, said this month when releasing the results of a large survey.

Some other trends have been positive: Teenage deaths in vehicle accidents began falling more rapidly about 15 years ago. Teen pregnancies and bullying are down as well.

The release of the C.D.C. report has led to a raging debate among experts and journalists about whether technology deserves much blame (or credit) for these trends. My own takeaway is that while many uncertainties remain — and technology does have benefits — there is good reason to believe that technology use is the primary cause of the problem.

Even the positive trends in teen health point to technology: Pregnancies, vehicle deaths and bullying are down partly because teenagers are spending more time by themselves and less time together.

The counterarguments defending technology tend to have two big weaknesses. First, they exaggerate the significance of narrow academic studies. Second, nobody has come up with a persuasive alternative theory that fits the timeline of teenagers’ struggles. I go into more detail on both points below.

Doomerism isn’t new

My colleague Michelle Goldberg devoted her latest Opinion column to explaining why the timeline of the past two decades strongly suggests that technology has harmed mental health. The leading alternate explanation — call it the hellscape theory — argues that teenage misery is a rational response to Covid, Donald Trump, climate change, mass shootings, misogyny and other problems. But, as Michelle notes, the timeline doesn’t fit.

The deterioration of teenage mental health predates Covid and Trump — and the deterioration is evident in countries that didn’t elect Trump and don’t endure mass shootings. The mental health trends line up better with the spread of digital technology, including the introduction of the iPhone (in 2007) and the rise of selfie culture (around 2012).

I’ll add one point to Michelle’s case. Earlier periods in American history also created grist for teenage angst. Schoolchildren in the 1950s feared nuclear annihilation. The 1960s included the Vietnam War, riots, assassinations and murders of civil rights activists. In the 1970s, popular culture was full of predictions that overpopulation would cause the world to run out of food.

None of this previous doomerism created a teenage mental health crisis like today’s.

Carl Sagan’s wisdom

As for the academic research, much of it does find that digital technology makes teenagers less happy.

One clever study used the variation in the times when Facebook arrived on college campuses and found that anxiety tended to rise after its introduction. Another paid people to quit Facebook and found that they felt better. By one count, 55 studies have found a correlation between social media use and mental health problems, compared with 11 that found little or none.

Skeptics point out that the magnitude of the effects is often modest. But that’s to be expected. The studies are necessarily narrow because they don’t eliminate digital technology from their subjects’ lives. People who quit Facebook can still spend hours staring at their phones — experiencing FOMO or wondering why their friends aren’t immediately replying to a message — rather than socializing face-to-face with other human beings.

Overemphasizing the small magnitude of findings from limited academic studies reminds me of a point that the astronomer Carl Sagan liked to make: Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Some questions don’t lend themselves to an elegant experiment. Sometimes, the totality of the evidence is stronger than the average correlation across a group of artificial experiments. And people sometimes need to make real-world decisions before academic studies can offer unambiguous conclusions.

Practical advice

With this reality in mind, I called Lisa Damour last week and asked what advice she would give to parents. Damour is a psychologist who has written two best-selling books about girls and just published a new book, “The Emotional Lives of Teenagers.” She is no anti-technology zealot. She thinks social media can have benefits for teenagers, including connections with peers. But she also sees reason for concern.

Her first piece of advice is not to blame teenagers. They didn’t invent smartphones, and earlier generations would have used those phones in the same ways that today’s teens are.

Her second piece of advice might be summarized as: less. She believes teenagers should rarely have their phones in their bedrooms, especially not at night. A phone is too disruptive to sleep, and sleep is too important to mental health.

Parents can also introduce digital technology in stages, recognizing that a 13-year-old brain is different from a 17-year-old brain. For younger teens, Damour suggests a phone that can send and receive texts but does not have social media apps.

I know that some people think it’s impossible to deny Instagram or TikTok to a teenager. But it’s not. If you talk to parents who have done so, you will often hear that it is quite possible — and that they have no regrets about having done so.

Related: A Times guide to helping teens who are struggling with mental health.


War in Ukraine

Russia pounded Ukraine with drone strikes overnight.

Vladimir Putin claims to be interested in peace talks, if only to placate allies like China and India.

In more than 100 cities globally, Russians protested Putin’s war.


Children in Afghanistan are dying from cold and malnutrition during a particularly harsh winter.

An accidental leak from a Chinese laboratory probably caused the Covid pandemic, the U.S. Energy Department believes. Other U.S. officials believe the virus emerged through natural transmission.

A boat carrying migrants broke apart in southern Italy, drowning at least 59 people, including a newborn.

After a summit to de-escalate tensions, Jewish settlers burned dozens of Palestinian homes to avenge the killing of two Israelis hours earlier.

“We will lose democracy”: More than 100,000 people across Mexico protested the government’s weakening of its election watchdog.

Other Big Stories

Few employers outside of tech are laying off workers. The pandemic has left many companies afraid of staff shortages.

A Supreme Court decision has spread confusion about where people can carry firearms.

At least three tornadoes hit Kansas and Oklahoma.

Labor and delivery wards are closing in rural communities, even as maternal deaths increase in the U.S.

Indian Americans are a rising force in politics, propelled by wealth and high education levels.

U.S. newspapers are dropping the “Dilbert” comic after the creator called Black people a “hate group” on YouTube.


Gail Collins and Bret Stephens discuss the train derailment in Ohio.

Syria’s civil war, with its refugee crises and Russian aggression, shaped our world. But the world has abandoned Syria, Lydia Polgreen says.


Kung Fu nuns: They’re mixing meditation with martial arts.

Wanted: Caretaker for child, dogs, chef and nannies. Is this the worst job in the arts?

Metropolitan Diary: A veteran gets a special cab ride home.

Quiz time: Take our latest news quiz and share your score (the average was 8.3).

Advice from Wirecutter: Pick the best soda maker.

Lives Lived: James Abourezk was the first Arab American senator and supported Palestinians and Native Americans. He died at 92.


Jake Paul: The YouTube influencer lost a boxing match to Tommy Fury in Saudi Arabia.

A career high: Damian Lillard scored 71 points in the Portland Trail Blazers’ win over the Houston Rockets last night.

Combine week: The N.F.L. world will descend on Indianapolis as scouts and executives prepare to evaluate prospects. The Athletic’s Dane Brugler has previews of the offensive and defensive prospects they will be eyeing.

Hockey trade: The New Jersey Devils acquired the star player Timo Meier.


Coming to Broadway

The Times has a guide to live performances in New York this spring. Here are three of Broadway’s new attractions:

“Fat Ham,” which won a Pulitzer Prize last year, is a comedic riff on “Hamlet,” set at a Black family barbecue in North Carolina. “I hope that little stretch of 42nd Street is a little more Southern, a little more country,” the playwright, James Ijames, said.

“Bad Cinderella,” a musical from Andrew Lloyd Webber, sees the fairy-tale heroine as an empowered rebel. Here’s a Q. and A. with the show’s stars.

No two dancers are alike in “Bob Fosse’s Dancin’,” a revival that demonstrates there’s more to Fosse than fishnet tights and bowler hats.


What to Cook

Cook rice in the microwave. The Times’s Priya Krishna says it’s better than the stovetop.

What to Read

Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor, preaches Republican Party lines in his new book. But he sounds like a “mechanical try-hard,” a Times critic writes.

What to Watch

“On the Adamant,” a French documentary, won the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Now Time to Play

The pangrams from yesterday’s Spelling Bee were unevolved and unloved. Here is today’s puzzle.

Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Move like water (four letters).

And here’s today’s Wordle. After, use our bot to get better.

Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David

P.S. Berlin’s Reichstag building burned 90 years ago today.

Here’s today’s front page.

“The Daily” is about Fox News hosts’ texts.

Matthew Cullen, Lauren Hard, Lauren Jackson, Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Ashley Wu contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at [email protected].

Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.

Source: Read Full Article