EXHAUSTED AFTER a company holiday party, she slid between her 500-thread-count sheets and eased into a quiet photo-scrolling stupor, incessantly refreshing Facebook in case any undesirable images of her popped up. She glanced over at her husband, but his eyes were transfixed, face awash in that familiar blue light as he calmly slid his finger over the glossy screen. Suddenly, there was a buzz — he tapped on an incoming message and his eyes widened and lit up with a childlike joy. She was about to ask him what made him so happy, but then the party pics appeared on her phone too. Talking would have to wait.
When did it become this way for so many couples? More important than our romantic partners, the smartphone has become our number-one bedmate, the last thing we glance at before we fall asleep, the first thing we reach for when we wake up. It serves as the ultimate command center — the place where we bank, buy cleaning products, order food and search for hookups. Plenty of mobile applications tout time-saving benefits, promising to simplify our lives and allowing room for what “really matters,” but it seems that what really matters is often just spending more time swiping and scrolling.
Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist who has authored more than 130 scientific publications and six books, details the host of issues brewing as a result of excessive screen time in her book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood — and What That Means for the Rest of Us. A researcher of generational differences for the past 25 years, Twenge noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states in 2012. Binge drinking, drug use and pregnancy were all down, yet rates of teen depression and suicide had skyrocketed. The factor tying it all together? It was exactly the moment when the number of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent. According to Twenge, the iGen generation — born between 1995 and 2012 — is on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades, and much of this deterioration can be traced to young people’s phones.
“The impact of these devices has not been fully appreciated and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans,” she says. “The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health.”
While jarring, Twenge’s message isn’t novel. Since the ’90s dot-com boom, when AOL and dial-up tones proliferated in households throughout the United States, papers and studies started surfacing, pointing to technology’s possible deleterious effect on our lives. Writer Richard Louv discussed many of these consequences in his pivotal book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Louv makes the case that reconnecting kids with the outdoor world would help alleviate many ailments like depression, obesity and attention deficit disorder. He also makes an argument that America’s future hangs on it.
“Growing up, many of us were blessed with natural space and the imagination that filled it,” Louv writes. “America’s genius has been nurtured by nature — by space, both physical and mental. One might argue that the internet has replaced the woods, in terms of inventive space, but no electronic environment stimulates all the senses.”
Nancy Dess, a senior scientist with the American Psychological Association, bolsters this claim. “None of the new communication technologies involve human touch; they all tend to place us one step removed from direct experience,” she says.
Since the advent of the internet, especially after Facebook and Twitter, social media has attempted to fill our interpersonal quotas, and most would say it has fallen short. It’s not all grim, of course. These platforms allow us to connect with faraway family members and long-lost friends, learn about new places, hear other perspectives, share and bond over passions and disseminate information. “One of the biggest benefits is the emotional fulfillment I get when I post about my anxiety and OCD,” says Sarah, 30, who at one point had a social media following of over 100,000, “and get five people messaging me telling me I’m not alone.”
So when does it take a turn for the worse? In the Atlantic article “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” writer Stephen Marche contends that social media provides more breadth, but not the depth of relationships that humans require. He goes on to say that users begin to find it difficult to distinguish between the significant relationships we foster in the real world and the casual relationships formed through social media. Meaning, the digital followers we amass don’t amount to friends IRL (in real life).
In addition to this confusion, the various platforms have also given rise to a digital status competition — a massive, never-ending quest for followers and likes. The pressure to project and maintain a FOMO (fear of missing out)-inducing profile is arguably even more palpable in places laden with high-earning, high-achieving residents, such as the Bay Area. “I wasted so much energy and emotion on a selfie app,” says Sarah, who presently has about 15,000 Instagram followers. “And really the likes and follows don’t mean anything.”
Meanwhile, the amount of time people spend on social media is constantly increasing. According to analytics firm Flurry, Americans are spending up to five hours per day on mobile devices, and just over half of this time is spent on social media, messaging and media and entertainment applications. Statistics only paint part of the picture, and usage from individual to individual undoubtedly varies, but there do seem to be general trends. Among teens, girls are on social media more often — about an hour and a half a day versus a little under an hour for boys — and 44 percent say they enjoy it “a lot,” versus 29 percent of boys who felt the same, per a 2015 Common Sense Media story.
A quick non-research-based way to see how media-savvy teens have become thanks to social media is to compare how they posed for photos before and after the selfie phenom — let’s just say the first group was definitely not considering their ideal photographic angle. The goal of gaining followers in an effort to achieve or maintain status, and the things we do to achieve that, are chipping away at living in the moment. “The engagement from people was so insane,” Sarah says of her peak-follower days. “I’m a pretty reserved person, so it allowed me to pretend to be someone who was way cooler and way more confident than my actual self.”
Aside from the aforementioned selfie and FOMO, social media has birthed a whole new batch of terms to describe our mobile activities. “Doing it for the ’gram” — Instagram users going places and taking photos for the sole purpose of posting them on the app — is actually changing the American landscape. In a November 2017 article in The Outline titled “Instagram Is Loving Nature to Death,” travel photographer Brent Knepper asserts that thanks to the photo-sharing app, big crowds are coming to previously little-known remote destinations and, while there, not treating the land with respect.
“There’s definitely a community aspect of it,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with seeing a cool space on the internet and deciding to go there. It’s just, maybe, don’t start fires there, and clean up your poop.” More and more often, Instagram feeds are populated with people’s highlight reel, which conveniently omits the messy behind-the-scenes stuff. The platform serves as a stage for the idealized self and life, inciting feelings of inferiority and jealousy in those who view the content, a dynamic that extends beyond followers and into personal relationships.
Back to our bedtime couple. Dismissing our loved ones in real life in favor of what we see on our phones can harm relationships, and there’s a term for that, too. In a 2015 study aptly headlined “My life has become a major distraction from my cell phone: Partner phubbing and relationship satisfaction among romantic partners,” James Roberts and Meredith David explore the effects of “phubbing,” the practice of snubbing our significant others for our devices. Their study suggests that overuse of our phones in the presence of others can lead to a decline in relationship satisfaction and that even just having the phone out on the table interferes with our ability to connect.
“It is ironic that cellphones, originally designed as a communication tool, may actually hinder rather than foster interpersonal connectedness,” David and Roberts write. Their findings also point to a vicious cycle: a phubbed individual turns to social media, and the resulting compulsive behavior presumably leads that person to phub others — perpetuating and normalizing the practice. And it’s the compulsive aspect that’s especially alarming.
“We’re learning more about the way developing brains are really being sculpted by what they’re exposed to, in permanent ways,” says Marin County Public Health Officer Matt Willis. “The architecture and wiring of our brains evolves into our mid-20s, and we know substances like alcohol and drugs affect this process and can lead to addiction.” Willis says social media is having the same effect. “The rapid-fire loops of impulse and reward found only in the virtual world can literally condition the brain to expect this as normal. This can lead to craving on a chemical level when the mundane pace of reality is the only option.”
Why do people get into the phubbing habit in the first place? It’s not accidental. There is corporate interest in keeping people engaged with these applications. Throughout Silicon Valley, behavioral scientists and UX (user experience) designers study what’s addictive and utilize struggle-detection software that optimizes user experience to get you to do what they want on the screens. Notifications, in turn, become intermittent reinforcement, similar to the high a gambler feels when he or she wins, making us return to our devices again and again. Simply put, these apps are designed to keep users scrolling.
Currently, social media addiction is not officially recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a disorder, but mental health experts feel the distinction is inevitable. As a part of a 2010 study from the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania, researchers blocked access to social media sites for students who were connected via the university’s IP address. Many acted much like tobacco users who sneak cigarettes, admitting to surreptitiously spending time on social media sites on their smartphones. Meanwhile, internet addiction rehab programs and boot camps have become commonplace in China, and more are appearing in the United States.
So how many likes is enough? What can we do to curtail these damaging habits? More research still needs to be done in this field and ultimately it’s up to the user to figure out his or her point of balance. “I use social media to promote my Etsy store, but it doesn’t rule my life like it once did,” Sarah says. “I still have guilty pleasure follows, and I’m not anti-selfie or anti–Instagram model, but I feel like I’ve seen behind the curtain, and [that insight] helps me when I feel bad for losing followers.”
Some coping tools are also available. Moment — which is a mobile app — automatically tracks how much you use your device every day. Users can set limits and can even force themselves off if they’re over. There are also app-free ways of dissuading usage. At a group dinner at a restaurant, a friend asked everyone to put his or her phone in a pile at the center of the table, and the first person who picked up his or her device had to pick up the whole tab. No one reached.
Below are statistics from Deloitte’s 2017 Global Mobile Consumer Survey, which polled more than 51,000 respondents in 32 countries. The U.S. sample size was 2,000 respondents ages 18 to 75.
• Smartphone ownership is 82 percent.
• 89 percent of respondents check phones within an hour of waking up.
• 81 percent check phones before going to sleep, and 52 percent don’t check phones during the night.
• On average, smartphone consumers check their devices 47 times a day. The youngest consumers (ages 18 to 24) check phones 86 times a day.
• 47 percent of respondents try to cut their smartphone usage by keeping their devices in their pocket, turning off notifications, and powering down at night.