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  • As access to smartphones grew, teen loneliness increased, per a recent study of more than 1 million teens around the world. Tweet This
  • Teen loneliness increased between 2012 and 2018 in 36 out of 37 countries, including in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and North America. Tweet This
  • Teens...realize the impact smartphones and social media are having on their lives, and they want to make things better—they often just don’t know how. Tweet This

Smartphones bring many conveniences: real-time directions, ride-sharing services, access to the internet’s information from anywhere. But one of their most seductive promises is this: We never need to be alone again.

Via the smartphone, we can connect with friends and family no matter where we are. Teens, in particular, have bought into this premise, using social media and other apps to constantly interact while at home or at school. There has never been a better time for feeling socially connected.

In theory, this connection should bode well for teens’ well-being—in particular, they should feel less loneliness, an emotion that occurs when we feel alone and disconnected from others. But has it boosted teen well-being? Do teens feel less lonely?

In a recent study of more than 1 million teens around the world, my co-authors and I found the opposite: As access to smartphones grew, teen loneliness increased. In previous research, we’d found that U.S. teens’ feelings of loneliness began to rise around 2012, just as smartphones became popular and teens started spending less time with each other face-to-face. At the same time, other indicators of teen mental health also began to suffer, with depression and suicide rates both rising.

Although we can’t definitively prove that smartphones were the cause of these negative trends in teen mental health, they certainly seemed like the primary suspect. This is the case I made in my book, iGen, detailing the trends that have shaped the generation born between 1995 and 2012. The adoption of smartphones led to a fundamental change in how teens spent their social time, and the rise of smartphones and loneliness occurred in lockstep between 2012 and 2019 (we don’t yet have data from 2020 and beyond, when the COVID-19 pandemic impacted teen social interaction). 

Many people have criticized the idea that smartphones might have had anything to do with the increases in teen loneliness and depression. Although some of these arguments were based on misreadings of the data, others raised valid points. 

These criticisms tend to fall into two primary categories. The first is this: If smartphones are the cause, why didn’t teen mental health suffer in other countries as well? After all, the smartphone was adopted in many countries around the world at about the same time. European teens’ life satisfaction didn’t change much over this time, for example. However, no study had yet examined loneliness, which might have been more impacted by the social disruption of smartphones. In our recent study, teen loneliness increased between 2012 and 2018 in 36 out of 37 countries around the world, including in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and North America. The trends appeared nearly everywhere, suggesting a worldwide cause rather than localized issues.

The second category of criticism is the “But what about …?” group of alternative explanations. For example, could teen mental health be suffering due to other social issues such as income inequality, economic downturns, or declining family size? In our recent study, we tested these possibilities by analyzing whether any of these other social factors rose and fell in tandem with teen loneliness from 2012 to 2018 in the 37 countries. They did not. The only factors that did: Access to smartphones and time spent online. 

Our study did not look at individual teens—we didn’t examine, for example, whether teens who spend a lot of time on their smartphones are lonelier than those who spend less time. Although other studies have done this, we were more interested in group-level effects: How did teen loneliness change as more and more people had access to smartphones? 

That is a crucial question, because smartphones and social media impact people who don’t use them, or who use them only sparingly. Consider Paige, 14, who does not have a smartphone or a social media account. But when she wants to hang out with her friends in person, they say no, because teens don’t hang out in person as much anymore. Without a smartphone, she has few ways to communicate with her friends. When she tries to talk to her friends at school, they often take out their phones and look at them during the conversation. It’s not surprising that Paige feels lonely. 

But so might Kaylin, who has a smartphone and is often on social media. Her friends also look at their phones when she talks to them at school, and social media allows her to see pictures of everything her friends and school peers are doing without her. Social media makes everyone else’s life look much more glamorous than her own. Online communication can connect her to her friends at any moment, but it often feels empty and unfulfilling. 

So what can parents and teens do, given that loneliness is a group problem and not just an individual one? It seems like you can’t win either way —teens who use these technologies are lonely, and teens who don’t use them are also lonely.

Especially if your kids are in 6th grade or younger, one strategy is to team up with other parents to postpone everyone getting a smartphone. The grass-roots parent group WaitUntil8th has taken this approach, having parents band together to agree that their children will not get a smartphone until 8th grade. This way, your kids are not the only ones to not have a smartphone, and they have other kids to hang out with in person. 

For older teens, talk over solutions. When I gave presentations on this research at schools before the pandemic, teens were eager to find solutions to technology overload. They realize the impact smartphones and social media are having on their lives, and they want to make things better—they often just don’t know how. This research suggests that group-level solutions will work better than individual ones. Groups of friends can agree that they will occasionally take breaks from their phones, or that they will put them away for an hour or two when they get together. Schools can allow phones only before and after the school day, requiring students to put their phones in their lockers or a secure location from the first bell to the last. That way, lunch period is for face-to-face interaction, and no one has to worry that their conversation partner will pull out her phone.

Smartphones are connection devices, which is why we need connected solutions to solve the imbalance they’ve created in our social lives and those of our kids. We are not going to solve this problem alone.

Jean M. Twenge is a Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University and is the author of iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy--and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.