Digital Imprint: How Smartphones Are Warping the Mental Health of Gen Z
Back in 2022, we explored the alarming surge in anxiety and depression among Gen Z teens in an article titled "Anxiety and Depression are On the Rise. Is Social Media to Blame?". The piece outlined data pointing to significant increases in both self-reported mental health issues and acts of self-harm, both of which have skyrocketed in recent years, especially among girls born after 1995 who had access to social media during their early teens.
Fast forward to a month ago, when a group of researchers published a massive study which refines our understanding of the interplay between smartphone use and mental health. This data set doesn’t only link smartphone use and mental health in a broad sense; it drills down into precisely the age at which smartphone use is most harmful. The results have important practical implications for parents and educators alike.
The Study Design
The design of the study in question was relatively simple. Using data from an initiative called “The Global Mind Project,” the researchers first gathered comprehensive data on the mental health of almost 28 thousand 18–24-year-olds. They measured everything from perceived resilience to mood to motivation and suicidality. They then correlated these mental health measures with the age at which the individuals first owned a smartphone or tablet. Their results paint a grim picture of affairs.
Result 1: Age of Smartphone Ownership Linked with Poor Mental Health
When the researchers compared the age of smartphone ownership with measures of wellbeing, they found a clear link between the two, with the relationship being most significant among girls. Among girls who received their first tablet or smartphone at age six, 74% of them reported experiencing mental health challenges in early adulthood. Conversely, among girls who didn’t receive a device until age 18, the percentage experiencing mental health challenges in early adulthood was only 46%. That’s nearly a 30% gap in absolute risk between the two groups. Interestingly, for males, the effect wasn’t as strong; there was only a 6% different in mental health scores between those who owned a smartphone at age six versus age 18.
Result 2: Age of Smartphone Ownership Linked to Suicidality
The researchers didn’t only look at broad, composite measures of mental health. They also analyzed specific measures of mental health, such as the presence of suicidal thoughts. They measured this on a 9-point scale, with 1 meaning “never causes any problems” and 9 meaning “a constant and severe impact to the ability to function.” Young girls introduced to smartphones at the age of 6 recorded an average rating of 5.8 on this scale. Girls who didn’t own a smartphone until 18, conversely, had an average rating of 3.6.
Result 3: The Social Self
Another construct the researchers investigated is something called “The Social Self." This term is less tightly linked to mood disorders, but instead captures the core of how people perceive themselves and their place within social circles. It encompasses concepts such as self-worth, confidence, and one’s ability to form and maintain relationships. The study's findings on this front are particularly revealing.
The results showed that early device adopters often faced challenges in forming genuine connections, maintaining a positive self-image, and scored lower on measures of adaptability, resilience, and motivation.
Again, for boys, the disparity wasn’t as severe, underscoring the fact that smartphone use appears to impact girls more negatively than it does boys.
Interpreting The Results
While answering the question of why early smartphone use harms kids’ mental health is beyond the scope of this article, it’s worth briefly exploring some of the major hypotheses put forward by leading experts in the field. While there is much disagreement in this area, some of the reasons postulated by different researchers are the following:
- Social comparison (particularly as it relates to body image for girls)
- Fear of missing out (FOMO)
- Online bullying
- Disrupted sleep due to time spent on screens (sleep is critical for mental health)
- Time spent on screens decreasing overall physical activity levels
- Hindered development of genuine social skills through in-person interaction
- Dysregulated attention due to the constant stimulation of social media
The Bottom Line
The study we’ve been discussing offers a harrowing look at the effects of early smartphone ownership. The trend is clear: early exposure to the digital world has tangible repercussions.
The situation is urgent, particularly for young girls. A nearly 30% disparity in mental health simply based on the age of exposure to digital devices is not just a statistic; it's a call to action.
While one obvious tactic is to simply delay device ownership for kids who don’t yet have them, complete avoidance isn’t a practical solution in our modern, digitally connected world. It’s equally important to advocate for responsible digital policies in schools, and to educate and guide our children to use these tools in ways that enhance, rather than diminish, their well-being.
While the complexities of our digital age often blur the path forward, one thing is clear: we must find a way to navigate these challenges. Through more research, community engagement and open dialogue, we can strive to chart a course that safeguards the well-being of our younger generation in this ever-evolving digital landscape.
Video: Jonathan Haidt: Has Social Media Destroyed a Generation?