Hooked at Birth: Are Smartphones and Other Mobile Devices Transforming the Next Generation of Humans?

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I first heard that wretched sound seven years ago.

It was a quiet Saturday with my family in Houston, Texas in 2010 and I was busy talking baseball with my older brother. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my one-year-old nephew sprawled belly-down on the wood floor, his face lit by the faint incandescent glow from my brother’s iPad

My nephew was playing a simple game featuring colorful vanishing blobs. Nobody had explained the rules to him, but he organically and effortlessly tapped orb after orb — the cha-chinging sound of coins marking his success. He was a natural.

It was as if those simple rudimentary actions functioned at a primal, instinctual level. I looked away without thinking much of it.

Not long after that, my brother called over, alerting us that dinner was ready. He walked over to my nephew, gently leaned down, and clasped the device in his hand.

It’s difficult to accurately describe the sound I heard next. A high pitch shriek violently escaped my nephew’s throat and brought me to attention. His shrill cry sounded like an alarm clock bashing between my ears. I looked over to see a spontaneous fountain of thick tears pouring down his smooth baby skin, now reddened with anger. What stood out the most in that moment,however, was the insatiable gut wrenching howl that persisted long into the night once my nephew's young mind understood he would not be getting the device back.

At just fifteen-years-old, I could not adequately process the meaning of this scene. Now, I recognize this Saturday in 2010 as my first exposure to a generation that may be growing up addicted to inescapable mobile devices. My nephew, like so many other infants his age, was hooked on screens.

Hooked at Birth

Parents, psychologists, educators, and pundits have sounded concerns about smartphone dependency since the release of the original iPhone in 2007, but researchers are only beginning to have enough data to assess their worries. Their findings are troubling: Prolonged phone use and social media exposure has been linked to an increase in anxiety and depression rates in teens, putting nearly every child growing up today at risk.

In a 2017 study conducted by Common Sense Media, researchers found that 98% of children under the age of eight live in a home with some type of mobile device and 78% live in a home with a tablet.

While these statistics may seem unimpressive to today’s standard, one finding particularly stands out. 42% of children today under the age of eight own their own tablet device. Six years ago, that number was a mere 1%. Many of them, like my nephew, now grow up with these devices as a constant companion.

With record numbers of teenagers and young adults experiencing chronic, debilitating anxiety, some fear this newest generation may be even worse off, and headed at break-neck-speed towards a societal mental health crisis.

Data Source: Common Sense Media

“Addict” or Innovator?

The terms, “phone addiction,” “internet addiction,” and, “phone dependency” are used frequently in common conversation, but there is no consensus surrounding official criteria for device-induced mental illness.

In a 2012 article for Psychology Today, child psychiatrist Victoria L. Dunckley used the term, “Electronic Screen Syndrome,” or ESS, to describe a multitude of device-related impairments on children’s social and behavioral performance. She points to the overly stimulating nature of modern devices as a factor to the continued rise in attention deficit disorders and childhood neuroticism, which is a personality trait of being easily agitated and not easily calmed. Over the course of her practice, Dunkley wrote that she witnessed a notable difference in children’s moods. Symptoms would include irritability, low frustration tolerance, social immaturity, poor eye contact and excessive tantrums.

“ESS can occur in the absence of a psychiatric disorder and mimic it,” Dunckley wrote. “Or it can occur in the face of an underlying disorder, exacerbating it.”

Dunckley aligns with scholars like Nicholas Kardaras, Executive Director of The Dunes addiction treatment center in East Hampton, N.Y. In his 2016 book, “Glow Kids,” he found a bevy of research suggesting a link between device-viewing and increases in specific behavioral and emotional issues in young people.

“We’re now beginning to see the clinical byproducts of our modern age.” Kardaras wrote. “Increased ADHD, tech addiction, mood and behavioral disorders, psychosis — all as a result of our new and wonderous screen technologies.”

Kardaras argues that as iPads and other mobile devices become more integrated in early childhood development, we may be faced with more cases of ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) and a lower standard for attention. The overly stimulating nature of screens functions like a drug. The flashy, eye-catching graphics on a screen may easily catch someone’s attention. But to maintain their attention over time, the image needs to increase its level of stimulation. Just like drug users, Kardaras argues that by viewing stimulating devices frequently, children quickly develop a tolerance.

“The hyperstimulated child needs ever-increasing levels of visual stimulation to continue to stay engaged,” Kararas wrote.

While neither phone addiction nor internet addiction are currently recognized as mental disorders by the American Psychiatric Association, some countries outside the U.S. are taking note.

A 2015 report by South Korea’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family found that 14.6% of South Korean students showed symptoms of either internet or phone addiction. To put that in perspective, The World Health Organization estimates that both drug and alcohol addiction worldwide afflicts less than 6% of people.

South Korea currently treats people for a number of device related mental illness, including video game addiction. Seeing a crisis developing, the country even crafted legislation which prevents children under the age of 16 from accessing video game website between midnight and 6 a.m..

A Renewed Interest

Phone dependency leapt back into the public eye earlier this year, due in large part to the Atlantic article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation” by Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University.

The article, which spawned a flurry of follow up pieces at Slate, PBS, New York Magazine and others, made bold claims of the damaging affects of devices on young people. Based on research and firsthand interviews with young people, Twenge suggests that teenagers today have less sex, take less risk, and avoid social interaction mainly because young people no longer need to leave home. Their social life can be found nearly entirely on their phones.

Twenge claims that while teens today experience a remarkably safer real world experience, it’s at the expense of their mental health.
“More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party, today’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been,” Twenge wrote “They’re markedly less likely to get into a car accident and, having less of a taste for alcohol than their predecessors, are less susceptible to drinking’s attendant ills. Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable.”

Indeed, depression and anxiety rates among American youth have increased in tandem with mobile device proliferation. A 2016 study published in the journal Pediatrics shows a 2.8% increase in teens reporting a major depressive episode between the years 2005 and 2014 — and those are just the teens who came forward. Due to the stigmatization of speaking openly about mental health difficulties, that number could be even higher.

More recently, a study published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science went as far as to explicitly identify screen use as a major contributor to symptoms of depression and suicidal thought. Between 2010 and 2015, teens who responded “yes” to three or more categories of depressive or anxious thought increased from 16 to 22%.

Since people who were teens between 2010 and 2015 are now college-aged, I spoke to several undergraduate students at NYU to get their takes on phone dependency. On one of the last warm days of fall, I asked Gallatin senior Brian Greco to walk me through his daily routine.

Brian told me that every day, he has to pry open his heavy eyelids from a night’s sleep. He’s greeted by the blankness of his ceiling and aching stiffness from his body at rest. At this point, Brian’s phone enters his day. (about two to three seconds in) It will remain with him for the rest of the day. Sometimes, he says he doesn’t even get past opening his eyes.

“I am ashamed to admit that there are times when I wake up, my eyes are not even fully open yet, and I am already scrolling through checking the notifications that I missed from the evening,” Greco said, laughing as if admitting something he felt was not quite right.

“[My phone] is generally with me unless I am in dinner or in class,” Brian said, beginning to stammer. With a sigh, he admitted, “Well, even when I am in class, I guess.”

I also spoke to Dan Dao who graduated from the College of Arts and Science in 2014. His day also starts by swiping through his phone. As we sat in his downtown studio apartment, Dan described his morning ritual: checking Instagram and Facebook, reading Apple News, and meticulously maintaining his personal online brand.

“I think I would characterize my relationship with my phone as kinda dependent,” Dan said. “For both personal and professional reasons, I am always on my phone.”

I asked Dan how much of his phone usage could be categorized as work-related and personal. He started to say about 50/50 before cutting himself off mid sentence and correcting himself.

“There is really no separation [between work and personal phone use] for a lot of people who work in creative fields now.”

I noticed that while our personal experiences and relationships with mobile devices are different, Brian, Dan, and I share one key area. As Brian put it,“ My phone is with me probably the entire day.”

And we are not alone. In a recent study at Baylor University, students self-reported spending the majority of their day connected to their device. Male participants reported spending over eight hours per day on their phone. Women were even higher at 10 hours.

Whether for social satisfaction or job requirements, young people are increasingly expected to be “on call” all the time. While Dao and Greco both admitted they couldn’t imagine life without the constant connection of a device, they each accepted their dependency like fate, with bemoaning unease.

But of course, not all people agree there’s a link between screen time and mental illness. One of these people is College of Arts and Science junior, Abigail Weinberg. As I spoke with her on the seventh floor of 20 Cooper Square, she voiced skepticism over the fundamental assumptions made in Twenge’s Atlantic article and the cries of phone dependency more generally.

“I think some people are definitely addicted to their phones,” she told me. “But I don’t think it is an overwhelming phenomena that we necessarily need to be worried about.”

Abigail sees drawing connections between technology and anxiety as an overly simplified explanation. She said that she owned a smartphone throughout high school, but does not think it radically affected her social life.

“I was still really excited to be in the world,” Abigail said. “[Adolescence is] the time when you break away from being just a tween. That’s when you start having real-life-experiences, and I think that people still want to have those real-life-experiences.”

When asked why she thought some people get addicted to their phones while others do not, Abigail pondered for a moment, gently aligning the brim of her bright blue baseball cap with the center of her denim overalls.

“I think it varies from person to person,” she said.

Abigail described growing up in Massachusetts, the daughter of two baby boomer parents. In her household, phones were prohibited from the dinner table.

“It was no question — no phones,” she said. “If you wanted to look at your phone, then you would have to go somewhere else, but you weren’t having dinner with the family.”

Looking back, Weinberg said that this discipline probably contributes to her ability to go hours without checking her phone.

Maybe Abigail is right and the methods of tech-parenting discipline instilled on children plays a major role in how future adults interact with devices. Or maybe some people are more prone to addiction than others, and phones are simply one object of many that turns pleasure to pain.

While I’m not sure who’s right, one thing seems certain. Devices benefit everyday society at an exceptional cost. Only by recognizing how these devices work and affect our physical and psychological development can we make informed decisions for ourselves and our children. We cannot escape a technology-centered world, but this does not mean we have to be shackled by it.

Today, my nephew has an iPad and an iPhone. From his ride to school to the moments before bed, he is engaged with technology. But he also isn’t afraid to take a tumble hustling in backyard soccer. Sure, he goes to Minecraft camp — but he also collects firewood for family excursions and spends his summer nights stoking flaming embers in the quiet Texas countryside.

Texas expat, freelance journalist. Work has been featured in New York Magazine, Motherboard and Medium. I’m on Twitter @mackdegeurin

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