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Are Cell Phones Contributing to Teen Depression?


This program originally aired on August 15, 2017.

There's been some new and alarming research about the increasing number of suicides and cases of depression among teens. Are cell phones and social media contributing to the problem? During this hour of Talk of Iowa, host Charity Nebbe talks with Jean Twenge, who is author of the forthcoming book IGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. 

"For the data around 2011/2012, I started to see some large, sudden changes in just a year or two. And that’s unusual," she says. "Usually it takes some time to roll out. There is this pattern around a number of things --- there was a rise in symptoms of depression as well as a rise in loneliness, and happiness started to decline. This made me wonder what might be causing that. It made me wonder how teens are spending their time, and they were spending more time on screens."

Twenge says the teen suicide rate has tripled since 2011. 

Doug Gentile, who is a professor of psychology at Iowa State University, and Dr. Patricia Espe-Pfeifer, who is a neuropsychologist in the department of psychiatry at the University of Iowa, also join the conversation. 

Gentile says that it's important to limit screen time, and also valuable to make time to put down your phone and be bored. 

"There are screens everywhere," he says. "I think if we step back and we question 'what signal does it send when we have screens everywhere?' In a sense, one of the messages is that the worst thing possible in the world would be to be bored. Certainly my daughter believes that. There is a great study that came out a few years ago where they had people hooked up to a machine that could give you electric shocks. And people couldn’t just sit there and wait. They were sitting in there shocking themselves."

"We’ve forgotten the value of boredom. It’s often where motivation comes from. Instead what we’ve done is that we’re telling people they’ve got to be entertained from the outside, you can’t even make your own entertainment. "

Lindsey Moon is IPR's Senior Digital Producer
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa