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  1. Health & Science
15 June 2022

Smartphone use is having a radical effect on young people’s mental health

Screen time has its social upsides – but thousands of hours of lost face-to-face contact is an urgent concern.

By Phil Whitaker

In recent years, several concepts have become widely accepted as markers of a healthier lifestyle. The goal of five portions of fruit and veg a day helps shape dietary norms. Ten thousand daily steps has become a target for physical activity. Body mass index (BMI) is increasingly familiar as an indication of appropriate weight. Yet we have no comparable benchmark by which to gauge our lifestyle in terms of mental health.

That might be set to change thanks to the ubiquity of the smartphone. Academics such as Jean Twenge in the US have been describing escalating rates of loneliness, sadness and suicidal ideation among American teenagers since 2010 (roughly when the meteoric trajectory of smartphone ownership passed 50 per cent of the population). Through its Mental Health Million project, the non-profit organisation Sapien Labs has confirmed this mental distress to be a global trend, principally affecting 18- to 24-year-olds in all 34 countries studied, from India to the UK, independent of national economic factors.

[See also: In a new global survey of mental health, the UK is slumped in last place]

What seems to be happening is a degradation of the “social self” – a composite measure that encompasses how we view ourselves, and how we form and maintain relationships: in essence, how we fit in to the fabric of society. Sapien Labs assesses the social self as one of six facets in its Mental Health Quotient (MHQ) tool, administered as an online questionnaire. Individuals with a stunted social self typically report low self-worth, poor self-image and confidence, obsessive thoughts centred around relationship issues, feelings of distress or disconnection or hopelessness, and sometimes suicidal thoughts. The common factor internationally appears to be online life. The generation now reaching young adulthood is the first to have grown up with near ubiquitous access to smartphones and tablets, and surveys estimate they currently average seven hours online daily.

According to Dr Tara Thiagarajan, the chief scientist at Sapien Labs, the problem is not digital interaction per se, but what is being lost due to time spent glued to screens. We learn who we are and how to behave – how to cooperate, compete, care, negotiate, assert, compromise, empathise – as well as our sense of self-worth and how we fit in to society, through countless encounters and relationships. Thiagarajan estimates that a young person a generation ago would have spent 15,000 to 25,000 hours in personal contact with peers and family. Based on current levels of time spent online, she suspects that the average 18-year-old today will have had no more than 5,000 hours of face-to-face interaction during their entire childhood.

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Social media involves much interpersonal communication, of course, and sometimes leads to friendships with people who would never have been encountered “in real life”. But the human brain and mind have evolved to flourish in a milieu of constant, real-time, in-person interaction: facial expression, body language, eye contact, tone of voice, pupillary size; to say nothing of the power of touch, or linguistic nuances. Our brains are replete with networks of mirror neurons that continually reconstruct other people’s postures and movements imaginatively to acquire and develop numerous abilities, not least empathy.

The digital revolution has been astoundingly rapid, and we have been blindsided by the addictive nature of the online experience and how it has consumed our young. The ever stronger signals of its downsides should lead to reappraisal. Readily measurable through the MHQ, the social self, according to Thiagarajan, is a new benchmark for mental well-being – something with which schools can monitor the effectiveness of their personal-development curricula, regulators can deploy in negotiations with the technology sector, and parents can consider when determining what life is like at home. Thiagarajan believes it’s unhelpful simply to limit screen time; rather it’s about creating the opportunities and time for children to engage in “real life”’ pursuits – including simply “hanging out” with friends. Presumably, though, without them bringing their phones.

[See also: Knowing patients well can be life-saving. But family GPs like me fear our days are numbered]

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This article appears in the 15 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Big Slow Down