Episode 5: Smartphones and Adolescent Well-Being with Jean Twenge

In this episode of the Numinus podcast, Dr. Joe speaks with Jean Twenge about the impact of smartphones on adolescent mental health. They discuss:

Dr. Jean Twenge is a Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University. She is the author of more than 140 scientific publications and books including her most recent book: iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, which introduces the world to the first generation of adolescents to grow up with smartphones in their pockets.

More info on Jean and her research can found at jeantwenge.com. Her compelling TEDx talk can be found here. She is @jean_twenge on Twitter.

N.B. Dr. Twenge is coming to speak at Ometz in Montreal next week. Additional info below.

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Some highlights from our conversation:

“The name iGen is a little bit of play on an iPad or an iPhone. Among teens, according to some surveys ¾ of them have an iPhone. Not just a smartphone but an iPhone.”

“I look at generations using very large nationally representative surveys of teens and young adults. I keep an eye on the trends in those data sets and have been doing a number of projects on them. I started to notice a rather sudden change, around 2011 or 2012 in the responses of teens, especially around questions having to do with how they were spending their time and how they were feeling. And these were changes that were so sudden and so large that they were very unusual. Because I have been doing this for a long time, I got used to seeing changes that were fairly large but would take a decade or two to get there. And then I started seeing these more sudden changes. So for example, more teens started to say that they felt lonely and that they felt left out and more started to say they couldn’t do anything right or that they felt their life wasn’t useful and those last two are classic symptoms of depression. It became clear that there was a generational break between the teens 2010 and before and those 2011/12 and later and that something was going wrong in the lives of teens that so many more were saying they were lonely and depressed.”

“In seeing that that big spike in loneliness and depressive symptoms – and by the way the same trend also shows up in clinical levels of depression and self-harm so things like cutting or taking too many pills, in suicide rates, in anxiety, suicidal ideation. It’s a very very consistent trend – around 2010/2011/2012, right around that same period. In many different surveys, behaviors, as well as attitudes, as well as screening studies, there was a sudden spike in mental health issues. There was also a decline in happiness and in life satisfaction and in self esteem. So it’s a very consistent pattern.”

“So that of course then begs the question of why. What happened around 2011 that could possibly have caused this? […] I’d been working on another project using these data sets and finding teens were not spending as much time hanging out with each other in person, so in-person social interaction with each other. They just weren’t doing that as much. That trend started in 2000, but it really accelerated at the same time that depression and unhappiness were spiking around 2011 or so really. It really kind of fell off a cliff – the amount of time that teens were spending with their friends face to face. So that brought me to realizing “Why? Why were teens spending less time with each other face to face?” Because of the smartphone! Because they were spending more time communicating electronically. That seemed to bring it all together with the realization that it was that fundamental shift in how teens interact with each other socially, toward electronic communication, away from face to face communication, that could potentially be at the root of this sudden change in their mental health.”

“Seeing a friend face to face is like eating an apple – a whole food and natural food.  Communicating with someone on Snapchat or Instagram is more like eating Apple Jacks. It’s a food-like product and it may feel like food for an hour and then it isn’t very fulfilling in terms of nutrition or in terms of your energy on a long-term basis.”

“The happiest teens are those who use social media or use electronic devices a little bit. So an hour or so day. Once you get beyond two hours a day of use, that’s when you start to see the links to unhappiness and depression and so on. That’s the real key: limited use.”

“Smartphones are a wonderful technology. They’re very convenient. They can save us a lot of time. They can help keep us and our kids safe. But then we have to put them down and go live our lives. So the way I sometimes put it is this way: smartphones should be a tool that we use and not a tool that uses us.”


Dr. Twenge is coming to Montreal next week, invited by Ometz to speak as part of their annual Betty and Bernard S. Shapiro Family Lecture Series. The lecture is free and open to the public and will be of particular interest to parents and their children who want to better understand the effects of smartphones on families, relationships, and behaviour.

When: May 14, 2018

Time: 7:30 p.m. (doors open at 7)

Where: Shaare Zion Congregation: 5575 Côte-Saint-Luc Road, Montreal

Visit www.ometz.ca or call 1-833-NUMINUS (686-4687) to register