What the Teen-Smartphone Panic Says About Adults

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A growing body of research complicates the question of social media’s effects on teens. But that hasn’t stopped many adults from perpetual worrying about its presumed perils.

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:

Grown-People Lore

More than half a decade has passed since the psychologist Jean Twenge asked, in a viral Atlantic feature, whether smartphones had “destroyed” the generation we’ve since anointed as Gen Z. In the intervening years, asking that question has become a popular pastime, a way to fill the uncomfortable silences between other societal crises (of which there have been plenty). Yet despite the years of hand-wringing over the presumed perils of young people’s use of smartphones—and social media, in particular—a growing body of research complicates the equation.

Said equation was never exactly straightforward in the first place. Even last month’s high-profile advisory on social media and youth mental health, from the U.S. surgeon general, acknowledged both negative and positive effects of young people’s connectivity through digital platforms. As my colleague Kaitlyn Tiffany put it in a recent article, “The results have continually been mixed: Screens are ubiquitous, and they’re personal.”

If the science is so tough to pin down, why is the panic so widespread? Blame that common menace of seemingly unsolvable equations: too many variables.

Consider the research on smartphone use by adults. In terms of mental-health correlates, studies have found a similarly mixed bag as they have for kids and teens. Such uneven findings point toward the need to ask more, and perhaps different, questions about the technological, sociocultural, and material factors behind people’s reported states of mind, and perhaps hone in on areas of overlap. The takeaway might then evolve from “social media causes anxiety and depression” to, for example, “social-media content featuring people having rewarding experiences such as fun and friendship can worsen symptoms of anxiety.” But though that logic is true across the board, when adults are the research subject group in question, such nuance is likelier to enter the picture than when observers are probing the trouble with young people today—a conversation rife with conflated correlations and causations.

Then there’s the X factor of what I’ll diplomatically call “grown-people lore.” Those of us old enough to remember navigating jobs and social lives before everyone carried around a tiny pocket computer are wont to idealize that now-improbable-seeming before time, often forgetting that it came with its own inconveniences and anxieties. We also forget the panics that pervaded adults’ conversations during our coming-of-age, which may have differed in their content but otherwise echoed the tenor of current social-media debates. (In my late-1990s preadolescence, for instance, there was much angst over the potential impact of music lyrics on young people’s mental health, and serious debate as to whether the work of artists such as Marilyn Manson increased teens’ susceptibility to violent behavior.)

Nostalgia colors perspective, and all but certainly shapes widespread hypotheses of the clear and present dangers young people face. Because of this, adults across generations, and in every day and age, have demonstrated a knack for neglecting to apply the lessons of prior eras’ panics to the present moment. Today’s Gen X and Millennial parents fretting about their children’s social-media use may or may not be comforted to learn that, according to some studies, the overconsumption of TV and video games that marked many of their late-20th-century childhoods likely had a comparable impact on their tender, developing brains—for better and for worse.

This is not to diminish the real risks of excess social-media use on young people. A pronounced spike in teen mental illness neatly aligns with the dawn of the smartphone age—or, as the social psychologist and Atlantic contributor Jonathan Haidt calls it, “the transition to phone-based childhoods.” Parents and teachers see the ramifications firsthand: shortened attention spans, distractibility, strained interpersonal relationships, and, yes, elevated rates of depression and anxiety disorders, especially among girls.

Many young people are wary of tech dependency too. Their concerns, however, show a wider scope of analysis than those addressed in today’s social-media-dominated discussions, revealing a desire to find paths to a peaceful coexistence with digital tools, and also reflecting real introspection, wisdom, and resilience. This generation may indeed face hazards that their predecessors did not. But the evidence certainly seems to suggest that they’re far from a cohort “destroyed.”


Today’s News

  1. Politico reported that former President Donald Trump raised more than $2 million at his first major campaign fundraiser of the season, hours after his arraignment in Florida, according to a source familiar with the campaign.  
  2. The Southern Baptist Convention voted to uphold the expulsion of two churches for having women pastors.   
  3. A fishing boat carrying migrants sank off the coast of Greece. At least 78 have died, and more are feared missing.  


  • The Weekly Planet: French people are fighting over giant pools of water, Marion Renault reports.

Explore all of our newsletters here.

Evening Read

Still from Asteroid City
Focus Features

Asteroid City Is Wes Anderson at His Best

By David Sims

I am here, hat in hand, to admit that I underestimated Wes Anderson. I’ve enjoyed the filmmaker’s work for many years—his methodical aesthetic, the subject of a thousand weak parodies, might be the most recognizable in moviemaking right now. But in the past decade or so, I struggled to excavate much deeper meaning beneath Anderson’s fine-tuned flair, and began to worry that he was disappearing inside his own eccentricities. Isle of Dogs and The French Dispatch, in particular, seemed like charming, flimsy confections. His new film, Asteroid City, is a vigorous rebuke to that very critique. It pairs his inimitable visual elegance with an impassioned argument about the power of storytelling. And it’s a reminder that Anderson remains one of cinema’s best.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

An original illustration of planes cris-crossing an open book.
Illustration by Ben Kothe / The Atlantic. Source: Getty.

Read. Blood Meridian, one of Cormac McCarthy’s many novels that depicts worlds not built for you and me.

Listen. The podcast If Books Could Kill delves into the airport best sellers that we can’t escape.

Play our daily crossword.


If you’re interested in further exploring the panics and preoccupations of yesteryear, I have two podcasts to recommend: You’re Wrong About (which busts common cultural myths about American life) and You Must Remember This (a series on 20th-century Hollywood and the sensibilities that surround it). Specifically, check out the May 2018 You’re Wrong About episode on the satanic panic of the 1980s and the current, ongoing You Must Remember This series “Erotic 90’s,” which explores the decade’s attitudes toward sex and women, and their treatment in cinema.

— Kelli

Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.

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