Smartphones are now ubiquitous among the under 25 generation. They have grown up with smartphones to such an extent that they possibly can’t even remember a time when they didn’t have or use smartphones. Smartphone adoption and use is one aspect of communication that they can’t imagine themselves without. And apps like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine and games like Pokemon Go have turned young smart phone users into addicts. This is where we begin to tread dangerous territory.
A University of Illinois study in the US surveyed 300 students and found that high use and is linked to anxiety and depression amongst the youth. The study also said that those who self-reported themselves as addicted to their smartphones and internet browsing scored higher on depression and anxiety scales.
Before you press the panic button, it is important to draw the distinction between use of smartphones when you are bored versus being constantly glued to your phone and suffering separation anxiety when you are away from it. Being online and connected is also linked to overt smartphone addiction so it is not just about using the phone.
It is one of the ironies of the modern age that the millennial generation that despite being so connected, often report feeling lonelier and more friendless than before. The assumption here is that having hundreds of Facebook friends is not always better than having a friend you can reach out to in real life if you need help. The fact is technology has enabled connections, and also fragmented our attention and time spent with close ones. And to such an extent that the quality of time spent on fostering and maintaining close relationships that help us overcome or avoid negative feelings has dipped.
Increase use of social media also results in lower self-esteem as young people tend to view their own lives through the prism of Instagram filters and Snapchat selfie lenses and find it lacking. Without real world interventions or adult supervision, there is nothing to stop what you consume on the internet and how it affects you. What’s worse, from adult content to online bullying, everything worrying that was at a distance in the pre-smartphone and internet era is now accessible right in their palms and pockets.
The solution is clearly to regulate screen time from when they are younger. But it would also help if adults also detached from their smartphones and set a better example of responsible tech consumption. Having real interactions with real friends and family can also engage the youth better and help them share what they are thinking or feeling. Clearly we can’t go back to a pre-smartphone world anymore, but we can ensure that we don’t lose some of the healthy values of connection and engagement and quality attention and time that we enjoyed in that era.