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The pocket pacifier

Family | Is a mental health crisis among teens tied to their dependence on technology?
by Kiley Crossland
Posted 9/13/19, 02:41 pm

In interviews with 100 girls from ages 12 to 19 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.”

Associated Press/Photo by Seth Wenig (file) Associated Press/Photo by Seth Wenig (file) Juul products at a shop in New York

Flavor crackdown

The vaping industry is reeling this week after the federal government on Wednesday announced plans to ban thousands of e-cigarette flavors. Michigan announced similar plans last week.

Health advocates say vaping cartridges with fruit, candy, cereal, coffee, and chocolate flavors contributed heavily to the recent surge in teen vaping and nicotine addiction. Federal health officials on Wednesday said 1 in 4 high school students reported they vaped this year, and more than 80 percent of underage users said they picked their product because it “comes in flavors that I like.” The Food and Drug Administration said it will develop guidelines restricting the sale of all flavors except tobacco, noting flavored products could apply for FDA permission to reenter the market.

The announcement comes two days after the FDA issued a warning letter to Juul Labs, accusing it of illegally marketing its vaping products as a safer alternative to combustible cigarettes. The letter included reports that representatives from Juul gave school presentations to minor students in which they called e-cigarettes “99 percent safer” than cigarettes and claimed the FDA was going to “approve it any day.” It is illegal for companies to market “modified risk tobacco products” without an FDA order.

Juul, which manufactures a sleek vaping device that looks like a USB drive, accounts for more than 70 percent of the American e-cigarette market. Last year, Juul closed down its social media sites and voluntarily removed its fruit- and dessert-flavored vaping cartridges from retail stores after critics claimed the company marketed its products to minors online and used flavors to hook teens on nicotine. Juul was valued at $38 billion last year after Marlboro cigarette maker Altria paid $13 billion for 35 percent of the company. —K.C.

Associated Press/Photo by Andrea Melendez/The Des Moines Register (file) Associated Press/Photo by Andrea Melendez/The Des Moines Register (file) Sarah and Todd Palin in Pella, Iowa, in 2011

Overwhelming incompatibility

Todd Palin, the husband of former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin appears to have filed for divorce. Documents submitted last week in Anchorage Superior Court in Alaska matched the couple’s initials, birthdates, wedding date, and the initials of their only minor child. “There is an incompatibility of temperament between the parties such that they find it impossible to continue to live together as man and wife,” the complaint said, requesting joint custody of the child living at home and an “equitable division” of marital debts and assets. The Palins have been married for 31 years and have five children, four of whom are adults. —K.C.

A win for purity

A study published this month in the journal Psychological Science found that engaging in casual sex while single can contribute to the failure of a later marriage. Researchers found that when one or both spouses exhibited “unrestricted sociosexual” behaviors—making them more likely to engage in one-night stands and sex outside of marriage—they were less satisfied at the start of the marriage and experienced rapid declines in satisfaction over the first several years, ultimately predicting divorce. —K.C.

Kiley Crossland

Kiley is a former WORLD correspondent.

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  • JerryM
    Posted: Fri, 09/13/2019 08:26 pm

    I would strongly argue there is a link (and strong evidence) between social media and mental health; in my work, I see a growing number of studies showing this link.  However, Twenge’s evidence presented in this article looks more like the classic “correlation is not causation” argument.  Twenge (or someone else) needs to scrutinise Orben’s work.   The “Oxford” imprimatur or the name of a prestigious journal do not mean her findings are “gospel truth”.

    I am reading “Television and the Quality of Life”.  More broadly, we still know little about how our increasingly screen-mediated existence affects us mentally and spiritually.

  • CJ
    Posted: Sat, 09/14/2019 01:32 pm

    How many adults can stand silence for long? Television, radio, and now smartphones are a constant distraction for them as well.

  • TWH
    Posted: Sat, 09/14/2019 08:30 pm

    A study "found that engaging in casual sex while single can contribute to the failure of a later marriage."

    This required a study?!

  • AlanE
    Posted: Tue, 09/17/2019 01:19 pm

    Probably not a good idea to lay all the blame at the doorstep of the smart phone. There may well be some to be laid there, but causes are rarely as simply as a single thing. As other things to consider, perhaps lack of meaningful responsibilities at home, decreased time and interaction with parents, school tasks that seem unrelated to life, generalized anxiety about becoming an adult and coping with needed skills thereof, and the list goes on...


  • not silent
    Posted: Thu, 09/19/2019 04:02 pm

    I think social media, like any other human invention, can be used for good or used for evil. It seems to me that, just like with other media and etc, it would be helpful to practice moderation and to use discernment.