The total time a high school senior spends on electronic media — texting, Internet, gaming, chat — is six hours a day.
This statistic appears in psychologist Jean Twenge’s book entitled “iGen,” about the use of digital electronics by today’s teens. Twenge summarizes the extensive research on how these devices are undermining the intellectual and emotional health of our youngsters.
The underlying cause of the harm is simple. Under normal conditions, teens face a “stimulus vacuum.” Just sitting in a chair doing nothing they are, in effect, bored. This absence of stimulation propels them to reach out and explore the world. It prods them to meet people, make friends, play sports and games, and undertake collective projects. They read books and take up hobbies. When alone with their thoughts, they ponder questions, develop answers and perspectives.
This normal process of exploration and growth is short-circuited by the smart phone. As soon as the teen feels slightly bored, he immediately relieves this pressure by checking the screen and tapping a few letters. In this way, the electronic device fills the stimulus vacuum that, otherwise, would have drawn him into rewarding connections and maturing reflections.
Research cited by Twenge shows that the obsession with electronic devices is causing modern teens to cut back on all kinds of engaging activities, including sports, paid work, doing homework and volunteering. Today’s teens are even less likely to hang out with friends, or drive a car. I’m especially sensitive to this deficit in motivation from my volunteering at the Sandpoint Teen Center. In just the last few years, I’ve seen a sharp decline in the eagerness of youngsters to take up games and participate in projects.
One result of dropping out of life’s challenges is unhappiness. Twenge’s data show that teens who spend more time with electronics, especially social media, are more likely to suffer loneliness and depression. Other problems associated with digital devices include sleep deprivation, electronic addictions, and bullying.
It’s time we faced up to these dangers. To start with, as Twenge says, speaking to parents, “. . . it’s best to put off giving your child a cell phone as long as possible.” Once youngsters have the devices, one can implement limits, like not using i-phones certain times of the day, or on certain days of the week, and not keeping them in the bedroom.
Also, parents should stop distracting their children with calls and texts. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in the middle of a game of ping pong at the Teen Center when the youngster suddenly throws his paddle down and reaches into his pocket saying, “My Mom’s on the phone.” Sometimes it’s a fib, but all too often it is indeed a parent who is adding to the electronic din that is robbing our youth of their youth.
Jim Payne is president of the Sandpoint Teen Center.