Smartphone Teens: Less Work, Less Sex, More Suicide

In a new Atlantic article on the maladaptation of the smartphone generation, psychology professor Jean M. Twenge says a decline in independent behaviors (which she ties to the prevalence of phones and online interaction in youth life) corresponds with a decline in teen employment:

Independence isn’t free—you need some money in your pocket to pay for gas, or for that bottle of schnapps. In earlier eras, kids worked in great numbers, eager to finance their freedom or prodded by their parents to learn the value of a dollar. But iGen teens aren’t working (or managing their own money) as much. In the late 1970s, 77 percent of high-school seniors worked for pay during the school year; by the mid-2010s, only 55 percent did. The number of eighth-graders who work for pay has been cut in half. These declines accelerated during the Great Recession, but teen employment has not bounced back, even though job availability has [Jean M. Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?The Atlantic, September 2017].

Twenge’s observation supports analysis I’ve provided previously this year: it’s not the increasing minimum wage but generational changes in values and behaviors that are driving kids out of the workforce.

On the good side, Twenge says our smartphone kids also appear to be drinking less and waiting longer to have sex. On the arguable side, today’s teenagers show less desire to drive (saving on gas and garage space good; having to drive teenagers everywhere… tiring). On the bad side, they are more depressed and suicidal:

…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.

Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide, such as making a suicide plan. (That’s much more than the risk related to, say, watching TV.) One piece of data that indirectly but stunningly captures kids’ growing isolation, for good and for bad: Since 2007, the homicide rate among teens has declined, but the suicide rate has increased. As teens have started spending less time together, they have become less likely to kill one another, and more likely to kill themselves. In 2011, for the first time in 24 years, the teen suicide rate was higher than the teen homicide rate [Twenge, September 2017].

It may be awfully hard to restrict kids’ use of a device that apparently deters them from going out and making trouble. But we still have to parent our kids through these gizmo-enhanced psychological perils.

One Response to Smartphone Teens: Less Work, Less Sex, More Suicide

  1. Donald Pay

    I believe we’ve discussed this in a similar topic before. Before going into some personal observations, just let me point out that teens are competing with adults for many of the beginner jobs. During the 1980s Reagan era, the economy was so bad for many middle and lower income families that many Moms had to go to work and some Dads lost good union jobs in manufacturing and ended up in service jobs. Whatever you think of teens, they aren’t as reliable as Mom and Dad, so employers preferred adults. The “Reagan boom” was mostly a bi-coastal, big city boom. Where “real people” lived, the manufacturing and farming communities of the Midwest, Moms and Dads started displacing teens for the Mcjobs.

    Next you had “welfare reform” under Bill Clinton driving more adults into starter jobs. During this time there was a trend to computerize offices. This drove up employment for a time as workers needed training and businesses needed a tech department, but a lot of office clerking jobs, which women held, soon followed manufacturing into the trash bin. But the service economy would hire these folks, so there was more pressure on teen jobs from adults.

    I think people are too quick to blame technology for the wrong thing. It’s not behavior that changes because a teen is sitting behind a computer screen playing the Beavis and Butthead Loogy Game, as my daughter did. It’s opportunity. Opportunities for employment have decreased, putting adults in competition with teens.

    Then, of course, you have teens these days doing other things, such as summer school, debate camps, sports camps or music and drama camps.

    Personally, I know a couple of now 20-year old kids fairly well. They were addicted to smartphones and had a series of summer jobs, sometimes two, all through high school. This may be anecdotal, but it seemed all their friends also had jobs, too. Madison, in the summer, empties of the college undergrads, so there is a huge job market for teens to take service jobs during the summer. I expect all this depends on the community, but I don’t think it depends on cell phones.

    As for teen suicides, a lot of that has to do with other things: drugs, alienation, bullying. Teens that are having difficulty may gravitate to the smartphone, rather than the smartphone causing anything.