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  • We function best when there are reliable cues about things that we care about the most—at home, at work, at school. Tweet This
  • We live in the age of ambiguity, and devices and social media are not optimally designed to clear things up. Tweet This

Teens and young adults seem to be showing sharp increases in anxiety and depression. Jean Twenge, author of iGen, has drawn much attention to this increase. She offers a reasonable hypothesis about it that I want to build on, here. By hypothesis, I mean an idea that may or may not be true but could be worthy of further consideration and testing.

My hypothesis is that cuelessness may also be playing a role.

The Trends

Anxiety and depression have increased substantially among teens in the U.S. over the past five years or so,1 trends also seen in other advanced economies.2 Twenge wrote about this phenomenon in an article in The Atlantic as well as in her new book. While such problems have been increasing for decades (see another media story on this featuring Twenge in 2009), there does seem to be a particularly sharp uptick of late. Twenge suggests that wide adoption of smartphones is the primary culprit. In the Atlantic piece, she writes: It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades.”

Twenge believes that the dominant driver of these effects is social comparison. Social comparison speaks to the fact that we are happy or not based both on how our lives are going as well as on how we think the lives of others are going. With humans, it’s never just about me, it’s always about me among them. Smart phones, combined with social media tools such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, provide endless opportunities for social comparison. Again, quoting Twenge from her article in The Atlantic: “For all their power to link kids day and night, social media also exacerbate the age-old teen concern about being left out."

While she may or may not be correct, it’s a good hypothesis.

Consider Melissa, a 16-year-old from New Jersey who is tuned in and locked on. On some days, she’s out with her friends doing what friends do—talking, laughing, sharing videos and pictures from their lives and also the Internet. When not out with friends, Melissa is at home, by herself. Sort of. She’s never really by herself because her phone is always with her. Like so many others, and maybe especially other teens and young adults, she spends a lot of time monitoring what’s happening “out there,” with special attention to the lives of those in her social network—as well as the Kardashians.

What does Melissa see as she stares through her phone out into the world? She sees people having fun, doing exciting things, touting accomplishments and, worst of all, she sees evidence of people being together, without her.

Do people normally post their boring moments, failures, and comments on their isolation on social media? Okay, yes, some do that. There are plenty of YouTube sensations featuring people sharing their misery. Schadenfreude is even more common. Of course, there is the mundane stuff that plenty of people share on social media. It’s fascinating to know what someone ate for lunch. Actually, not so much—at least not to me.

More often, what we see are indicators of success, connection, and prime-time “in-group” experiences. In addition to feeling left out, anyone with a smartphone or other device now can watch endless documentation of how successful or gorgeous their peers are—and feel worse about themselves by the moment. Instant dis-gratification. (I just made that word up. So, no, you cannot go look it up on your phone right now. Keep reading. Focus.) If you were a little fragile already about your self-esteem and development as a younger human, you’d be primed only to notice the stuff that makes you feel bad about yourself.

Making the situation worse is the fact that app and device designers are perfecting ways to keep you from looking away. The whole system is literally addiction by design (though, I can accept arguments either way about whether this fits a true addiction model). The power of devices to capture our attention has led to mounting concerns about how seriously distracted we are if our phones are anywhere nearby, with evidence that just having a phone nearby while having a meal with friends or family reduces how much we enjoy doing so.3 Everything about phones and apps is designed to say, “notice me.” Your mind wants to check that you are not missing something important. (Give me a moment while I check my Twitter account. Wow! Just since I started proofing this draft, I got liked several times. That’s so nice. I matter. Noticefication. Follow me: @DecideOrSlide.)

I think Twenge is correct that these dynamics are part of the mix in the rise in teen anxiety and depression. She also notes other factors that doubtless play significant roles, including loss of sleep, lack of interest in going out beyond the home, and reduced face-to-face contact with friends. There may be so many other factors in play. Maybe the trends in anxiety and depression will start to move downward, soon. Who knows, but it’s not difficult to believe that we are living through one of the most extraordinary changes in how humans interact in history.

I submit that increases in anxiety and depression for teens and young adults may be exacerbated by cuelessness. That's cue, not clue. The rise in cuelessness is consequential for several reasons.

The substantial increases in anxiety and depression among teens and young adults may be exacerbated by decreases in the reliability of information about relationships that can be found in devices, messaging, and social media.

In the Age of Ambiguity, Cuelessness Abounds in Dating and Mating

I (along with colleagues like Galena Rhoades) have argued that one of the most profound changes in dating and mating over the past 40 years is the rise of ambiguity.4 There used to be much more structure—more steps and stages and publicly understood markers—to indicate where people were headed in their romantic relationships.

I think this trend toward ambiguity is motivated. One aspect of this argument is that ambiguity feels safer than clarity in an age where people are uncertain of relationships lasting. That means romantic (and sexual) relationships form in an environment with a paucity of cues about who is really interested in who, who is committed, and to what degree. Sure, there are still cues (engagement remains a big signal of commitment), but not like there used to be. In plays and movies, scripts specify cues for specific actions, scenes, transitions, and lines. Dating and mating have become relatively scriptless, and a lack of script feeds cuelessness.

My colleagues and I have written a lot about ambiguity in romantic relationships. If you want to read more: here, here, or here, or way back here

In addition to the specific cuelessness of modern dating and mating, it would not surprise me if the increasingly, generally ambiguous pathway into adulthood on many dimensions contributes to the mental health of emerging adults. However, those changes, along with changes in dating and mating, have been going through large changes for some time. Twenge may be onto something to suggest that the recent sharp rise in anxiety and depression could be linked to the appearance of smartphones in our lives. Now, I will double down on that idea.

Devices and Social Media are Optimized for Fostering Experimental Neurosis

There is a classic series of studies in the history of behaviorism (classical conditioning, specifically) that focused on inducement of experimental neurosis in animals. The physiologist Pavlov is believed to be the first to observe and widely discuss this phenomenon. He noticed how discomforted his laboratory dogs were when initially learning to discriminate between stimuli that meant food was coming versus not. Pavlov was famous for getting a neutral stimulus to produce salivation by pairing it with the original stimulus (food). You can make a name for yourself by studying spit if you can generalize your argument.

Pavlov and many others started testing what would happen to dogs (or other animals) as they made it increasingly difficult to discriminate between stimuli. In the most famous paradigm, he would have pictures of circles indicating food was coming while pictures of various forms of ellipses would mean no food was coming—and then he made the ellipses increasingly like the circles so that it was hard for the dogs to discern the difference. The dogs would break down. They would get agitated and howl or curl up and become passive.

Think a moment about how stressed you might get if, all of a sudden, you could no longer discern whether a stop light was telling you to stop, go, or floor it. That’s the true meaning of yellow, right?

A pretty good definition of experimental neurosis is given in the TheFreeDictionry: “a behavior disorder produced experimentally, as when an organism is required to make a discrimination of extreme difficulty and "breaks down" in the process.”

That’s cuelessness. It’s not simply the complete absence of cues. The dogs received cues but they had trouble getting them. Cuelessness also comes about when there is an inability to reliably discern the meaning of cues you can plainly see. Apply that thought to how intently a teen or young adult might be trying to decode stimuli about their social situation as reflected in the soft glow of their phone.

  • “Is he really interested in me?”
  • “Why won’t he follow me?”
  • “Why didn’t she ‘like’ my post?”
  • “How did all my friends end up getting together tonight without me knowing about it?”
  • “What does that winking smiley face really mean?”

Back in the heyday of research on experimental neurosis, another method for inducing it was by increasing the delay in time between the signal and getting the food. This had a similar negative effect on the dogs. How often have you heard about people becoming fraught over waiting for someone they are interested in to get back to them, especially by text, about what was happening next? “Is he going to get back to me about getting together?” “Why hasn’t she responded to my text message, yet? It’s been hours.” The agony of such delays in the dating world is well described in Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg’s book, Modern Romance. It’s a thing, and it’s all stimulus and delayed response or non-response. Some of this comes from fears that a quick response would be too unambiguous, and could mean one had caught feelings or was desperate or was, you know, actually interested in the other. Clarity is so uncool.

I propose something like experimental neurosis could be contributing to the rise in anxiety and depression among teens and young adults. Everyone functions best when there are reliable cues about things that they care about the most. At work. At home. At play. In love.

Can You Hear Me Now? Not Really.

Quiz: What’s the number one thing that teens and young adults do not do on their phones? Calling people. It is no accident that messaging systems on our devices now have a proliferation of emojis and special effects. Why’s that stuff there? First, per my earlier point: emojis are part of the nuclear arms race of features designed to make sure you cannot look away from your phone. Second, typed words can be misunderstood, particularly in cryptic messages. Perhaps you have experienced a time when you realized some friend, loved one, or colleague got the wrong idea from what you wrote in an email or text, when that would not have happened had you made a phone call. Emojis are supposed to add some emotional information to the message, but do they? 

The cost of convenience is a thinning out of the information available, especially about emotion, the good stuff of social connection.

The author of a new series of studies, psychologist Michael Kraus, concludes that there is much more information about emotion in voices than in facial expressions.5 Kraus is particularly interested in empathic accuracy, which he argues is a foundational element in healthy social connection. In fact, he noted that “a dearth of empathic accuracy is a common symptom of many psychological disorders.” Kraus further notes that speech is a “particularly powerful channel for perceiving the emotions of others.” In fact, cues in speech convey a lot of information about emotion even when the receiver cannot understand the words.

Sure, there is plenty of information in someone’s face, but Kraus argues that there is more in the voice. Contrast that with how little emotional information can be in a text message. Sure, texts can convey 100% of the relevant information when the point is merely to say, “I’ll meet you at 3:15 at the coffee shop at 1st and Elm.” But a text is going to be kind of thin on information about the true emotion the other is feeling. Since texting conveys relatively limited information about emotion, it may be limited in fostering empathy and understanding when something more is at stake. (That does not mean that texts are not useful, including for teens at higher risk.6)

Teens and young adults are particularly tuned to their social networks, including whether or not they matter to others. We all are, but it seems reasonable to posit that this is an intense dynamic when younger. The paradox here is that while masses of information move across electronic devices, there often is not a lot of there, there, when it matters most—such as when trying to decode if someone is interested as a partner or actually cares if you have been left out. In the specific domain of love and attraction, we live in the age of ambiguity, and devices and social media are not optimally designed to clear things up.

Back to smiley faces and winking emojis. You might ask: why aren’t emojis as useful for conveying emotions as hearing someone’s voice? Obviously, one point is that it’s a simpler system. If a voice conveys more information about emotion than a real face, how much less information is contained in an emoji?

But I have a better answer than that. It’s easy to send a little smiling face no matter what you are feeling. Complex systems of lie detection may yet be based on voice tone, but they are not ever going be based on emojis. When you send an emoji, you could be happy or trying to placate someone and send the very same text with a smile. The emoji one sends is the emoji one intends to send. If there is a reason to mask true feelings, it’s so easy to do that in a text, while in a voice, it's not so easy.

If you get on the phone with someone you know who is having a bad day or feeling something else strongly, you are vastly more likely to detect it. It’s hard to hide what’s real in the voice because voice is cueful, not cueless. In fact, if you are a teenager and something is wrong, and you want your parent to help (and if you have a parent you trust), you should call. Your parent will hear something in your voice that is hard to hide, and it might change the nature of what happens next, usually for the better.

While I’d like to suggest that we all talk more, I know that idea is quaint. It seems entirely possible that texting has become preferred, in part, because it allows everyone to be doing two or more things at once, without having to give away the fact that we can be reading something on the web or watching TV all while sending some texts back and forth with another person. Last week, there was a few minutes where I was texting with my wife, one of my sons, and a colleague—all at the same time. A conference call would not have worked.

There is a lot in favor of text, emails, and social media posts because they are asynchronous. Those on the receiving end do not have to respond in the same moment as when the message is sent. But the cost of the convenience is a thinning out of the information available, especially about emotion. And emotion is the good stuff of social connection, as Kraus notes.

I should note that a clear message does not have to be the one you wanted to receive. William and Sonya are college juniors who were “dating” for a couple of months when William broke it off by text. Sonya was not pleased to get the text, but at least he didn’t ghost her. Even though breaking up by text may seem immature, not to mention heartless, at least the message Sonya received was clear. Pavlov’s dog would rather know for sure that no food is coming than be in distress trying to get the signal straight.

* * *

My hypothesis is that the current, substantial increases in anxiety and depression among teens and young adults may be exacerbated by decreases in the reliability of information about relationships that can be found in devices, messaging, and social media. I’ve argued before that upcoming generations may have more attachment insecurities than prior ones because family instability has likely continued to increase (even though divorce rates have trended down). If so, that could mix with the increasing cuelessness of society to increase the challenges for young people. It might be a blip and the kids will be alright, or it might be something else to be concerned about.

​​​​​It’s just a hypothesis. More broadly, the trends could be nothing and these ideas may be off track. Also, I didn’t set out to pose solutions. I leave you cueless. It’s the age we live in, I guess.

Scott M. Stanley is a research professor at the University of Denver and fellow of the Institute for Family Studies.

Editor's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.

1. For examples of news reports on this, see here and here and here.

2. Here’s a news article from the U.K., as an example.

3. Dwyer, R., Kushlev, K., & Dunn, E. (2017). Smartphone use undermines enjoyment of face-to-face social interactions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Advance online publication.

4. I link to various accessible pieces later in this section. Some of the scholarly references for this point include: Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding vs. Deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55, 499-509.; Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Whitton, S. W. (2010). Commitment: Functions, formation, and the securing of romantic attachment. Journal of Family Theory and Review, 2, 243-257.; Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Fincham, F. D. (2011). Understanding romantic relationships among emerging adults: The significant roles of cohabitation and ambiguity. In F. D. Fincham & M. Cui (Eds.), Romantic Relationships in Emerging Adulthood (pp. 234-251). New York: Cambridge University Press.; Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Scott, S. B., Kelmer, G., Markman, H. J., & Fincham, F. D. (2016). Asymmetrically committed relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Advance online publication. 

5. The author, Michael Kraus, showed that there is more information that enhances empathy in the voice than in the face. He theorizes that people often intentionally communicate their feelings through voice. I am not as sure about that point as much as the idea that it may be hard to hide one’s feelings from being expressed in tones of the voice. Regardless of that point, Kraus suggests that there is a lot of emotional information in voice and less in the face. And, I’d argue that there is vastly less in text and email. In an age of ambiguity in relationships, that may be exactly what is preferred. Citation: Kraus, M. W. (2017). Voice-only communication enhances empathic accuracy. American Psychologist, 72(7), 644-654.

6. A study on a convenience sample of high-risk teens suggested that they were less anxious and depressed on the days that they texted more, not less. However, the same study found that on days they texted more, they also had more attention and conduct problems. There is a lot of complexity in all this and much to be sorted out. Citation: George, M. J., Russell, M. A., Piontak, J. R., & Odgers, C. L. (2017). Concurrent and subsequent associations between daily digital technology use and high-risk adolescents’ mental health symptoms. Child Development. Advance online version.