Our teenagers are in crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the share of American high school students reporting “lingering feelings of sadness or hopelessness” has risen to almost half of young people. This disturbing news follows a report by Harvard’s Human Flourishing Program that the well-being of young adults has declined significantly compared to older age groups.
A host of factors are driving our children to despair, from diminishing social connections to growing worries about the future of the planet.
But there is no doubt that technology figures prominently in the problems that beset our teenagers. Current estimates suggest that children aged 8 to 12 spend 51⁄2 hours a day on screens, while teenagers aged 13 to 18 spend almost nine hours a day. Parents struggle to understand what this means for their children, fearing that such media use could be harmful, but not knowing what to do.
The teenagers themselves are worried about it. A recent study by the Wheatley Institute found that more than 60% of teens thought they spent too much time on social media, and half worried about the impact it was having on their lives.
In his flagship article “Did the smartphone destroy a generation? published five years ago in The Atlantic, Jean Twenge sparked a cultural debate when she concluded that the increase in depression and anxiety among adolescents was directly linked to the surge in digital media consumption. In the years since, hundreds of research studies have explored the link between media use and mental health issues.
Their conclusion? On average, the link between social media use and mental health risks is modest for most children. Yes, our teens’ growing emotional issues seem to be partly rooted in excessive screen time, but other ambient features of the environment – secularization, loneliness and lack of norms, to name three – also help explain why so many children struggle.
But there are teens for whom the negative effects of using digital media can be profound and significant. These teens seem to be especially susceptible to falling down the teenage tech rabbit hole, ending up depressed and otherwise struggling. They should be the focus of our attention as we try to address the significant mental health challenges facing young people today.
Who are these young people at risk? The largest study of social media use to date found that girls aged 11-13 appeared to be particularly vulnerable to negative impacts, along with boys aged 14-15. The “culture of performativity” inherent in social media seems to exacerbate the normal insecurities of young people, undermining an already fragile sense of self.
But a new report from the Institute for Family Studies and the Wheatley Institute – “Adolescents and Technology: What Difference Does Family Structure Make?” — identifies another vulnerable group: people from step-parent and single-parent families. This national survey of 1,600 Americans between the ages of 11 and 18 found that young people from non-intact families spent about two hours more a day on digital media than those who lived with their married biological parents. Young people living in blended families spent the most time on digital media.
Family type did not predict a greater likelihood of depression among youth who used less digital media. But for heavy drinkers (more than eight hours a day), the young people most likely to be depressed were those from non-intact families. It was the same with loneliness. Young people who were heavy users of digital media were more likely to report high levels of loneliness, with the highest percentage being among heavy users from non-intact families. A similar pattern emerged for feelings of dissatisfaction with life where there was a stronger link between media use and dissatisfaction among youth from non-intact families.
What all of these findings indicate is that youth from non-intact families spend more time with digital media and experience more negative effects from it when they use it heavily.
Part of the reason is that intact families had more rules about using technology, including no devices in bedrooms or during family meals. They were also more likely to do family activities like playing games, being outdoors, or having dinner without digital distraction. Families in which both biological parents are married are also more likely to have the resources to provide the responsiveness and attention that seem to protect young people from the negative effects associated with digital media use.
Young people from non-intact families who use digital media extensively may also engage with it in less positive ways (or for reasons). Research exploring the link between social media use and mental health problems has specifically found that time spent using social media does not directly predict negative mental health effects. But how a young person uses social media, including making comparisons to others, determines whether it’s related to depression or lower body image. Young people from non-intact families who are heavy users of digital media may be more likely to use it to process pain or emptiness in a less healthy way.
To be clear, many single parents do everything heroically — creating and maintaining rules while allowing bond-building family activities. But they often do so with fewer resources – emotionally and in terms of time – and they may have less support for consistent enforcement of rules around technology use. And blended families may have the added complexity of navigating less clear lines of authority when it comes to setting clear and consistent boundaries on teen technology use.
Changes in the American family landscape that have left millions of American children living apart from one of their biological parents have placed them at a disadvantage in many areas of life, including technology. This new report indicates that teens raised in non-traditional families struggle not only with high levels of technology use, but also with greater emotional fallout from spending too much time online.
These families need our support, and it is important that step-parents and single parents are aware of their children’s increased risk of depression and take all necessary steps to protect them.
Jenet Jacob Erickson is a Fellow of the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University. Brad Wilcox is a Future of Freedom fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
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