Smartphones are bad for some teens, not all

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(Candice Odgers/ Nature) — Last year, I received a phone call from an angry father. He had just read in the newspaper about my research suggesting that some adolescents might benefit from time spent online. Once, he raged, his children had been fully engaged with family and church and had talked non-stop at meal times. Now, as adolescents who were constantly connected to their phones, they had disappeared into their online lives.

He is not alone in his concern. Increasingly, people are claiming that smartphones have destroyed a generation, or that they might be making adolescents lonely and depressed.

After ten years of tracking adolescents’ mental health and use of smartphones, I think that such views are misguided. Most young people aged 11–19 (ages vary between studies) are doing well in the digital age. In the United States, a record 84% of students graduated from high school in 2016. Pregnancy, violence, alcohol abuse and smoking have all declined in teenagers in the past 20 years. Similar trends have been observed in other countries.

More and better data are crucial. But studies so far do not support fears that digital devices are driving the downfall of a generation. What online activities might be doing, however, is reflecting and even worsening existing vulnerabilities. (…)

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