A few months ago, Macleans ran a piece that sent shivers of terror and guilt down the spines of parents of teenagers everywhere. It was called, “How the smartphone affected an entire generation of kids” and addressed the overwhelming connection between depression and mental health issues and the rise of the smartphone. Kids born in 1995 or later (iGens) are the first generation to grow up with (on?) smartphones and, according to Jean Twenge, professor or psychology at San Diego State University, this is having a devastating effect upon their mental health.
According to Twenge’s research, teen suicide and depression and loneliness rates have shot up by 50 percent since 2012. Since 2012! Yes, statistics are malleable and don’t tell the whole story, but this is a sobering—check that, a stunning—number. These marvelous devices that promise so much—connection, knowledge, entertainment—seem to almost literally be destroying us. They have often reduced us to the functional equivalent of lab rats hammering away on buttons to get a hit of dopamine. We are so hungry for affirmation, so desperate to be entertained, so greedy for vindication and validation, and we pour all of this desire and longing into these little devices. When we don’t get what we want, we are crushed. We can’t cope. We aren’t coping.
I say “we” very deliberately because I don’t think this is just a teen problem. Teenagers experience the negative mental health effects of smartphones most acutely because they are negotiating these issues in one of the most emotionally volatile life stages there is. But I don’t think my generation is doing a whole lot better in coming to terms with the smartphone and the endless media it spawns and delivers to our every waking moment. No matter our age or generational designation, we are all being trained into certain modes of being by the technologies that we use. Or, perhaps more accurately, by the technologies that use us.
What the article makes clear, and what I suspect many of us (parents or not) have observed, is that the digital conditions of our existence are training us in some deeply unhealthy ways. They are training us to be profoundly reactive creatures. We don’t pause, we don’t ponder, we don’t take some time to actually think about what we see or read. We react. Thumbs up. Angry face. Sad face. A little heart. We breeze through our various “feeds” (a depressingly accurate term if ever there was one, because we truly are “feeding” at the media trough). We could modify Descartes’ famous maxim to “I react therefore I am.” Homo reacticus. This is who we are.
And when we spend huge portions of our days reacting to everything from the news of the day to pictures of Thanksgiving on Instagram, I think we are subtly training our brains to become little more than organs of reaction. Does this piece of media make me angry? Sad? Happy? Confused? Do I dislike the person (or media source) that produced this? Will others think less of me if I react positively (or negatively) to this? After considering these options for a few microseconds, we dutifully click to register our response. I shudder to consider what the long-term fruit of this felt imperative to react (and to be seen reacting) might be.
I also think that affirmation and validation are increasingly becoming the default expectations we bring to the online table. They are our native tongue. We expect to be affirmed and validated. We imagine, even if only subtly, that this is what we are owed. We don’t handle criticism well and lash out when we receive it. We scramble together a few passive-aggressive tweets or snaps or status updates. We seek validation from other (friendlier) sources. We hunker down with our ideological tribe and pile self-righteous ridicule upon our enemies.
And lost in our haste to connect and react and affirm and be affirmed are a number of vital lessons that all human beings (not just teenagers!) need to learn: You’re not always right. Not everything you do is worth validating. Your feelings aren’t always the most reliable barometer for what is true or good or worth pursuing. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to not react.
I suspect that we vastly underestimate the role that social conditions (including the advent of smartphones and social media) play in who we understand ourselves to be and how we make our way in the world. We tend to essentialize so many features of our identity. We imagine that people have always been like we are now, that people have always struggled with the endless identity issues and mental health challenges that we do today. We are just developing the courage to talk honestly about these things today. This is what we tell ourselves. And there is certainly some truth to this narrative. But only some. When this becomes the explanation for everything, without remainder, I think we’ve lost something crucially important.
We must also be willing to ask ourselves difficult questions about the socio-cultural conditions we are daily creating for ourselves and for our children to develop in. In our day, this must include the media and technology that we have granted/are granting almost unfettered access into our daily lives. What habits and ways of being are being formed in us? What modes of discourse are being normalized and validated? Which understandings and presentations of identity do we reward and which do we punish (particularly online)? What kinds of humans are we training ourselves and our kids to become?