In Defense of Complexity: Beware of Simplistic Narratives about Teens and Technology

by Katie Davis, Emily Weinstein, & Howard Gardner

We have been researching young people’s use of networked technologies for over a decade — before the existence of the iPhone, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram. We are often asked if social media and smartphones are good or bad for teens. Parents, teachers, policymakers — even teens themselves — are eager for answers. Clear and simple answers.

In this respect Jean Twenge’s article in the September 2017 issue of The Atlantic, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” does not disappoint. The problem, as we have come to understand through our research, is there are few simple answers — and certainly no single answer that can be applied to explain the mental health and well-being of an entire generation. We take issue with Twenge’s narrative for the same reason we ascribe to Einstein’s view: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

By Anonymous [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Though perhaps inconvenient, it’s essential to acknowledge and grapple with the complexity of young people’s digital media use. And taken as a whole, the body of research from which Twenge cherry-picks a handful of studies actually underscores the importance of nuance and the variety of ways in which adolescents experience digital life.

The stakes are high: if we fail to acknowledge complexity, we risk failing to support those youth who genuinely need our help and failing to get out of the way of those who don’t.

Let’s start with what Twenge gets right. We don’t dispute the population trends that she discusses. Teen depression and suicide rates have risen in recent decades to troubling highs. Teen birth rates and car fatalities have decreased.

We, too, have probed the roles that social media and smartphones may be playing in these broad trends. In fact, in The App Generation Howard Gardner and Katie Davis probed the possible effects of social media on young persons’ sense of identity, imaginative powers, and intimate relations. But we take sharp issue with drawing a straight line that traces these trends directly to a single source.

We see three main problems with this type of line drawing.

(1) Twenge uses correlational data to make causal claims. For instance, she writes:

…the effect of screen activities is unmistakable: The more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression. Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent, while those who play sports, go to religious services, or even do homework more than the average teen cut their risk significantly.

Yet correlation neither implies nor confirms causation – a lesson we teach repeatedly to first year graduate students.

(2) Despite saying “no single factor ever defines a generation,” Twenge spends all but a couple of throwaway sentences using a single factor to define iGen. Twenge acknowledges only briefly changing parenting styles, school curricula, and culture. Indeed, decades of research on child development confirms the prominent influence of social-contextual factors on youth’s lives and development.

To take another example, our own studies confirm the rise of reported mental illness in young Americans. But the hypothesized causes range from lengthier survival rates for at-risk youth, to the availability but irregular use of pharmaceuticals and therapy, to changes in family configurations and relationships, the challenging employment options and the possible disappearance of the American dream in a winner-take-all society. In other words, we might have equal rates of depression even in the absence of social media.

(3) Just as digital media is unlikely to be the sole cause of teens’ attitudes and behaviors, it’s also unlikely to have a singular, uniform impact on all teens. By focusing on main effects, Twenge propagates a view that social media and smartphones have the same influences on all young people. Importantly, this argument disregards a growing body of evidence that there are significant differences in how teens use and experience networked technologies.

We now know that teens differ in how they approach self-expression and manage peer feedback; in the number of celebrities and strangers they follow; in how much FOMO they feel; in the kinds of content they seek out online; and in how envious they feel when they scroll through others’ curated posts. We also know that these differences matter. Studies — including some that we’ve conducted — continue to tether such differences to variations in teens’ digital experiences and outcomes.

In crafting a compelling narrative, Twenge also omits existing evidence of a more optimistic tale. Two poignant examples, both based on studies published this year:

In a recent nationally representative survey of U.S.-based teens, the Associated Press and NORC found that teens who use social media report that social apps make them feel closer to friends (78%), more informed (49%), and connected to family (42%). Nineteen percent said social media makes them feel supported. Comparably fewer teens reported feeling pressure to always show the best versions of themselves (15%), overloaded with information (10%), overwhelmed (9%) and/or as though they are missing out (9%).

Researchers Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein analyzed data from a representative sample of more than 120,000 English adolescents. Their findings challenge, rather than support, a simple link between quantity of screen-time and psychological distress. Instead, their data support a “Goldilocks Hypothesis” and offer evidence that “moderate use of digital technology is not intrinsically harmful and may be advantageous in a connected world.”

Now that we have thoroughly muddied the waters, where do we go from here?

The absence of pat answers may be unsatisfying, even frustrating. But giving in to the allure of simple narratives does a disservice to our young people. It also undercuts our ability to help. In a recent experiment, Emily Weinstein found that the same social media interventions that helped some teens were ineffective — and perhaps even annoying — for others. Yet the teens who benefitted were arguably the most at risk of reduced well-being. By failing to consider and acknowledge the potential for differences among teens, we risk writing off interventions as ineffective when in fact they can result in measurable benefits for vulnerable teens.

We contend that only through the deciphering of this complexity can we fashion more effective strategies (both on and offline) for supporting youth. The path forward likely depends on it.