– Jean Twenge
Ask a teen today how they communicate with her friends, and they’ll probably hold up their smartphone. Not that they actually call their friends; it’s more likely that they text or message them on social media.
Today’s teens — the generation I call “iGen” that’s also called Gen Z — are constantly connected with their friends via digital media, spending as much as nine hours a day on average with screens.
After studying two large, nationally representative surveys, it was found that although the amount of time teens spent with their friends face to face has declined since the 1970s, the drop accelerated after 2010 — just as smartphones use started to grow.
Compared with teenagers in previous decades, iGen teens are less likely to get together with their friends. They’re also less likely to go to parties, go out with friends, date, ride in cars for fun, go to shopping malls, or go to the movies.
It’s not because they are spending more time on homework or extracurricular activities. Today’s homework time is either unchanged or down since the 1990s, and time spent on extracurricular activities is about the same. Yet they’re spending less time with their friends in person — and by large margins.
As previous studies have shown, it was found that those teens who spent more time on social media also spent more time with their friends in person.
So why have in-person social interactions been going down, overall, as digital media use has increased?
It has to do with the group versus the individual.
Imagine a group of friends that don’t use social media. This group regularly gets together, but the more outgoing members are willing to hang out more than others, who might stay home once in a while. Then they all sign up for Instagram. The social teens are still more likely to meet up in person, and they’re also more active on their accounts.
However, the total number of in-person hangs for everyone in the group drops as social media replaces some face-to-face time.
So the decline in face-to-face interaction among teens isn’t just an individual issue; it’s a generational one. Even teens who eschew social media are affected: Who will hang out with them when most of their peers are alone in their bedrooms scrolling through Instagram?
Higher levels of teen loneliness are just the tip of the iceberg. Rates of depression and unhappiness also skyrocketed among teens after 2012, perhaps because spending more time with screens and less time with friends isn’t the best formula for mental health.
Some have argued that teens are simply choosing to communicate with their friends in a different way, so the shift toward electronic communication isn’t concerning.
That argument assumes that electronic communication is just as good for assuaging loneliness and depression as face-to-face interaction. It seems clear that this isn’t the case. There’s something about being around another person — about touch, about eye contact, about laughter — that can’t be replaced by digital communication.
The result is a generation of teens who are lonelier than ever before.