Better Living

Why Smartphones Are Making Our Teens Anxious

We have overlooked the underlying causes of social media stress and our kids are paying a high price.
BY Melanie Hempe TIMEFebruary 3, 2022 PRINT

Think back to when you were a teenager. Remember that painful longing to fit in and the feelings of insecurity about your looks? Do you recall that cutting comment made to you in middle school, and the embarrassment of that awkward social mistake you made in high school? Now, imagine the anxiety you would feel if all those mistakes and comments were on a highway billboard that could never be removed. Welcome to the world of today’s teenagers. Where smartphones, with access to social media, are making our teens anxious.

Today’s teens broadcast their lives on the “billboards” of social media 24/7. Nothing is sacred—nothing is private on Instagram, TikTok, and other social media outlets. Research confirms that mental health issues such as anxiety, stress, and depression increase with smartphone and social media use. It is a linear increase, meaning, more time spent on social media equals more mental health problems.

Teen Mistakes on Display, 24/7

Adolescence should be a dress rehearsal for real-life—a preparation for the opening night of adulthood. Instead, teens are growing up fearful that their lives will be mocked, judged, and criticized.

During this season of their lives, teens should practice and become experts at social skills in real life, not online. Only when they are free to make mistakes and learn to fix them in a safe environment, without fear of judgment, will they thrive. After this daily dress rehearsal with peers, teens need the routines of a loving family. They require direction and feedback from parents to become refreshed for the next day. With a full emotional tank, they can reboot and try again till they gain confidence and figure out what works. That is how maturity is built.

But the day you hand a smartphone to your teen, you have pushed them on stage before they are ready. The dress rehearsal phase of adolescence has been canceled by our culture. Now it’s opening night—every night. The harsh critique that comes from their peer audience strips them of the dignity and confidence needed to complete this stage of development. Many teens get emotionally stuck in this stage of immaturity. Emotional tanks are on empty and anxiety is high, and this is how smartphones are making our teens anxious.

Everyone in the World is Watching

Some reasons smartphones cause anxiety are obvious: comparison with others, exposure to virtual violence and pornography, time away from productive activities and relationships, and being bullied. Texting also causes anxiety because it eliminates two essential tools for healthy relationships and communication: tone of voice, and the ability to see the reaction of the person you are texting. But let’s go behind the scenes and take a closer look at some of the hidden triggers that are sending so many teens to the therapist’s office for anxiety symptoms.

One of the most overlooked problems with teen anxiety centers around the lack of personal privacy. It is no mystery that most teens reveal more information about their private lives to others than they should—despite strict instructions from parents to hold back. They lack the filter to withhold private details because the executive function center—the impulse control center—is underdeveloped in the teenage brain. But when they reveal too much information, it wreaks havoc on their emotional development and health. Instead of sharing private information with a few close friends, or in a diary, they are broadcasting it in an effort to build a public personal brand. This is behavior triggered, taught, and rewarded in the social media environment. That may work for professional influencers selling shampoo and diet plans, but it doesn’t work for teens. In short, when the safe haven of personal privacy is absent, fear sets in. Oversharing and the criticism it brings creates a state of chronic stress. This triggers the production of stress hormones, and anxiety is born.

Negative Comments, few Comments, or no Comments… it all Feels like Rejection to a Teen

Along with the anxiety that comes from a lack of privacy, is the anxiety that comes with social rejection. Virtual rejection is an everyday experience for most teens and it is more harmful than parents realize. What may sound silly to an adult is devastating to a teen. Being left out of a group text, not being tagged on a photo, or not getting the likes they crave on their new TikTok video can feel like the emotional equivalent of getting laughed at in the hallway at school. This type of rejection during the teen years can leave permanent emotional scars.

Experts tell us that the pain from social rejection is felt the strongest during the teen years. To make matters worse, this pain is much greater when the rejection is displayed on a public platform for all to see. Symptoms from this pain are often what cause parents to seek professional help for their teens. But no conversation with a therapist, teen phone contract, or parental control app can prevent this pain. The more time teens spend on social media, the more rejection they will experience. This is another way that smartphones make our teens anxious.

A Culture of Disrespect Leads to Teen Anxiety

Another cause of teen anxiety not listed on the warning label for your teen smartphone is the stress related to the culture of disrespect. Social media platforms and group texting are breeding grounds for disrespectful behavior—venues for teens to mock their parents and authority figures in their lives, as well as each other. Toxic content is a big problem that we all are aware of but exposure to toxic disrespectful behavior is equally as damaging.

I’ll never forget the first (of many) times I read a group text where teens were calling parents stupid—referencing them by first names followed by a mix of profanity and name-calling. They were highlighting the disgust they had for their parents because they were making them do homework. It started with one teen making a comment, then they all joined in. All it takes is one comment to spark a fire that gets the others to follow.

The screen venue makes it easy to disrespect adults. What was never tolerated in person is now tolerated online. I have witnessed teachers and coaches being disrespected online in ways that would get kids kicked out of school had it been done in person. The temptation to voice these feelings in a peer group behind the screen is too enticing to pass up for many teens.

Bully Culture Creates Bullies and Victims

How does a culture of disrespect lead to anxiety? When a youth culture of disrespect for adults is fostered in real life, sports teams crumble, teachers can’t teach, and family relationships are ruined—the bully culture takes over and teens become anxious. Teens openly criticize authority figures and celebrities, as well as each other. Smartphones make our teens anxious because they know that no one is safe from social media bullies.

Things get worse when the disrespect moves online. Without respect for authority, teens have little respect for themselves and those around them. The absence of boundaries creates emotional chaos. Practicing disrespect with the convenience of a handheld device will make your teen more disrespectful online and in real life. Most parents don’t realize that by footing the monthly phone bill they are funding “disrespect lessons” for their teens and thereby increasing their teen’s anxiety.

Finally, after a few weeks of over-exposing their personal lives on social media and feeling the pain of social rejection. Then practicing how to relentlessly disrespect parents and authority figures, teens begin to believe that everyone subscribes to the bully culture. They have a difficult time trusting their parents and leaning on them for support as their anxiety builds. Since your teen is not an adult yet, just an apprentice adult, they still need you to guide them. They need your wisdom. But you have not been there to protect them. In fact, you may have been the one that exposed them to this situation.

“It’s Not My Fault, My Parents Gave Me The Phone.”

I know an eighth-grade boy, who spent two weeks being mocked by his peers on social media and viewing porn on his new phone. When his mother confronted him, he threw his phone at her and yelled: “I hate you for giving this thing to me.”

What would you have thought when you were a teen if your parents gave you a smartphone that was the cause of your anxiety? Would you have loved and respected them more?

Ultimately the biggest reason teens are more anxious today is because they have lost a healthy attachment to their families. When we hand over the smartphone, we are removing ourselves as the trusted adult in our teens’ lives, leaving them alone in a cruel virtual world. They can no longer trust their parents to guide them so they disrespect them and blame them. As one teen told the police after being caught sending nude photos, “It’s not my fault. My parents gave me the phone.”

Our teens need more from us. We cannot simply follow the crowd and give them smartphones hoping that everything will turn out okay. Our kids need us to protect and guide them. Our children long for our unconditional love, and they instinctively know that parents who love their kids set healthy limits to keep them safe. Parents must be strong enough to overcome the culture.

The Solution: Going Counterculture

If smartphones are making our teens anxious, what is the solution? Parents, you have a choice to make. You can choose to keep things the way they are and allow the source of anxiety to continue, or you can choose to make a countercultural decision. Replace your teen’s smartphone with a talk/text-only phone and ditch the social media and 24/7 internet access, or parent like the tech executives that delay smartphones until their children are 18. Many teens report that they are more calm and relaxed, get more sleep, and spend more time with friends and family after making the switch.

Are you worried that your teen won’t be prepared for the real world without a smartphone during high school? No need to worry. Teens don’t need to practice using a smartphone to be successful in real life—they need to practice real life instead. It will take your teen only about 4 minutes, not 48 months, to learn all they need to know about how to use a smartphone when they are mature enough. We did not have smartphones during high school and we learned how to use them just fine.

Warning, Growing up Without Smartphones Causes Success in Teens.

Growing up without chronic stress and anxiety gives teens an advantage over their peers. They will be more prepared in many areas of life than their smartphone-dependent classmates. They will have more time to spend on productive activities and they will have higher Emotional Intelligence (EQ). EQ can only be gained by spending time interacting with others in person. Teens without smartphones will attract plenty of friends because they will not be sick with anxiety, and they will be able to focus on building real friendships. By not having their smartphone as a crutch, they will be creative,  innovative, and energetic. They will be more socially confident. Teens without smartphones will have a clear advantage on opening night.

The Solution To Smartphones Making Our Teens Anxious: No Smartphone

There is hope! The mystery is solved. The solution is simple. Delay the smartphone. Forty-eight months of high school to be free from smartphone anxiety is a small price to pay to increase the odds that your teen will be much happier, more social, and emotionally healthy. These are foundational years for developing their adult identities, and many of the social habits they will carry forward for the rest of their lives. Forty-eight months to practice leading instead of following is the best investment you can make for your teen. Become a ScreenStrong family and stand up for your teens. Delay or remove the smartphone and reduce the anxiety. It may just be the best parenting decision you ever make.

Melanie Hempe, BSN, is the founder of ScreenStrong, an organization that empowers parents to help their children to gain the benefits of screen media without the toxic consequences of overuse that threaten healthy mental and physical development. The ScreenStrong Solution promotes a strong parenting style that proactively replaces harmful screen use with healthy activities, life skills development, and family connection.

This article was originally published on ScreenStrong.com

Melanie Hempe, BSN, is the founder of ScreenStrong, an organization that empowers parents to keep the benefits of screen media for kids while empowering parents to delay screens that can be toxic—like video games and smartphones. The ScreenStrong solution promotes a strong parenting style that proactively replaces harmful screen use with healthy activities, life skill development, and family connection.
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