Kehrberg: Social media depression

Nov 6, 2017 by

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There’s a new study out. In a nutshell: Smartphones are making this generation depressed.

Sarah Kehrberg


For the first time, the teen suicide rate was higher than the teen homicide rate in 2011. Or as the study’s author, Jean M. Twenge, starkly puts it, “[teens] have become less likely to kill one another and more likely to kill themselves.”


Twenge directly links happiness levels with the amount of time spent on a screen. Data from surveys and interviews showed that more screen time equaled less happiness, and more nonscreen time meant more happiness. “There’s not a single exception.”

Two important subpoints need to be made here. First, using a smartphone, even in excessive amounts, does not guarantee depression. These are trends and correlations, not certainties.

Second, it is not generic “screen time” that is linked with unhappiness. Twenge’s research clearly pointed to smartphones, and more specifically, social media, as the culprit for a higher level of teen malaise. Twenge reports that heavy social media users increase their risk of depression by 27 percent.

I don’t do social media, and I don’t profess to know a great deal about it. However, I do know that it is easily used as the popularity contest we all hoped we left behind in high school. I struggle to fathom myself at 13 years of age and needing to be “liked” 24 hours of every day. (The internet does not sleep, my friend.)

It also creates a community that is not physical. I have no data to pronounce that better or worse than the old-fashioned model of hearing, seeing and touching our “friends.” However, my gut instinct tells me that when the bottom drops out and we need community, the thumbs-up sign isn’t always enough.

Initially, I was dispirited by Twenge’s article. Smartphones are here to stay. If you need confirmation of that, imagine asking adults to get rid of theirs. What can be done?

Then I rotated the lens a bit and realized Twenge’s findings are an amazing affirmation of soccer moms everywhere. For years we have struggled upstream in the rapids of guilt for overscheduling our kids. Despite our best efforts, we somehow cannot say no to choir, rowing club and dance class. And that’s only one sibling.

But here’s the thing. Of all these activities, I have never (nor do I know of anyone who has) signed up my kid for Snapchat Club. If Katie is kickboxing every night, she’s less likely to be on her phone, right?

Some evenings our family realizes that it is 8 o’clock and we’ve just finished supper. There is still a little homework and perhaps an instrument to practice. No down time tonight.

I used to fight feelings of remorse: My children should have spent the afternoon and evening frolicking in the backyard. They could have written, rehearsed, and performed an original play. They could have made supper and set the table.

No more. Since reading Twenge’s article I feel a sense of accomplishment when the day is done and there has been very little time for my daughter to check her Instagram account. Keeping the kiddos pinging from one slot to the next is keeping them off a screen and one percentage point less likely to experience depression.

More words from Twenge: “If you were going to give advice for a happy adolescence based on this survey, it would be straightforward: Put down the phone, turn off the laptop, and do something — anything — that does not involve a screen.”

Gas up the minivan and bring on the soccer.

Sarah Kehrberg lives in Swannanoa, N.C., and attends Asheville Mennonite Church.

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