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Smart Phones are Taking a Toll on Teens’ Mental Health


Teen depression rates jumped thirty three percent between 2010 and 2015, while suicide attempts rose by almost a quarter. Psychologist Jean Twenge of San Diego State University has sifted through the various possible explanations and says only one factor explains the abrupt shift in American teens’ mental health – smart phones.

Over the same period, the fraction of teens with access to smart phones rose to almost three quarters, and has continued to rise. The pervasiveness of smart phones seems to cross all socioeconomic boundaries. And, while internet access can be a positive thing, Twenge says the hours that teens are spending online and the constant presence of social media is taking a toll on young Americans’ health and happiness.

But taking smart phones out of the hands of teens isn’t necessarily the answer.

“The happiest teens are those who have the device but only use it a little bit – less than an hour a day,” said Twenge. “If teens limited their use of the phone – not gave it up entirely, but limited it – that could potential have benefits for mental health.”

Of course, setting and maintaining limits on smart phone use is difficult, and not just for teens. Twenge says it's important for adults to model healthy smart phone use - keeping the devices out of the bedroom to protect sleep, and using the technology primarily to facilitate off-line activities.

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Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.