Blubaugh: Smartphones, social media take toll on kids

When I signed up for a Twitter account a few years ago, I had visions of participating fully as pretty much every journalist (and pro athlete and actor and Joe down the street and, oh yeah, our president) does, excited to have a new medium over which to share my, ahem, insights and witticisms.

I still haven't sent my first tweet.


In a rare display of self-awareness, I realized that at some point I wouldn't be able to help myself and I would send something offensive enough that I would embarrass myself or my company — at the least losing friends and necessitating an apology, at the most putting me in the unemployment line.

And I'm an adult.

I do use other forms of social media, of course. Who doesn't? Sometimes it gets a little depressing seeing everyone having so much fun, right? The rest of the world always seems to be at a party or a concert or a beach or on a vacation to lands I'll never see. Those posts are interrupted by prophecies of doom and gloom from the left and the right, telling me why I'm an idiot (or far worse) if I agree/disagree with a particular point of view. Invariably, after 15 minutes on social media, I don't feel quite as happy as I did when I started.

And I'm an adult.

At work, we here at the Times have pretty much given over commenting on our stories to Facebook. We post our content there and let people have at it. Rare is the story that doesn't inspire negative commenting about something, be it us, the subject of the story, other commenters, snowflakes, alt-righters, liberals, racists, Obama, Trump, whoever, with vitriol they would never dare say in person. With cybercourage, few seem to have any issue with ripping others to shreds, insulting them, baiting them, reducing them. And that's not just our stuff, check out any of your local online communities. Even the most innocuous posts often dissolve into name-calling and disparagement. It makes me want to, at the least, respond in kind and, at the most, seek them out and ... I don't know what.

And I'm an adult.

All of the above is what smartphones and social media have wrought, causing me great angst despite being a fully formed and informed, middle-aged, critical-thinking, world-weary, life-experienced adult.

Kids have it worse. So much worse.

The online predators are more than enough to be worried about. Scary though they may be, they are still, thankfully, rare and being policed. Problem is, maybe smartphones being used exactly as intended by nondeviants is dangerous, too, becoming all-consuming with social media and in too many cases putting peer pressure on steroids and taking bullying to new, 24/7 levels.

As a father of two daughters who aren't even teenagers yet, I was forwarded an article from The Atlantic headlined, "Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?" that seemed to confirm a lot of my fears.

Written by someone who has been researching generational differences for 25 years, the article points to an abrupt shift in teen behaviors and emotional states beginning around 2012. Why is 2012 important? That's when smartphones reached critical mass, with more than half of us using them.

The research shows that these young people differ from millennials not just in their views but in how they spend their time. They aren't hanging out with or talking on the phone with friends as much; they aren't dating as much; they aren't driving as much.

They are, however, spending a lot of quality time alone with their smartphones, interacting with others only through social media.

The researcher contends that the arrival of the smartphone has radically changed "every aspect of teenagers' lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health." It notes that the number of teens who get together with their friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2015.


The implications are not all bad: Teen drinking, sexual activity, accidents and homicides are way down. But, unfortunately, being wirelessly connected to everyone (and physically to almost no one) is not making teens happier. Quite the opposite.

According to a Monitoring the Future survey funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, teens who spend more time than average on their smartphone are more likely to be unhappy, while those who spend their time on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy. The research goes on to say:

"Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent, while those who play sports, go to religious services, or even do homework more than the average teen cut their risk significantly."

And …

"Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide."

And …

"Forty-eight percent more girls said they often felt left out in 2015 than in 2010."

And …

"Boys tend to bully one another physically, while girls are more likely to do so by undermining a victim's social status or relationships."

And where better to do that than on social media?

Smartphones also seem to be changing parenting. Today's adults, who as children once roamed playgrounds or bicycled or hung out at malls for hours on end without their parents having any real way to contact them, now keep close tabs on every move their children make, from insisting upon constant check-ins to GPS tracking. (Hanging out with friends can't be as much fun if it feels like Mom or Dad are right there beside you.)

The article points out that none of this can unequivocally be blamed on smartphones and social media, but both certainly play a major factor — if nothing else, in the amount of sleep teens are getting.

From 2012 to 2015, the number of teens who are described as sleep-deprived (less than seven hours of sleep per night) increased 22 percent. Hey, it's hard to put that device down when someone might be about to make a comment about you on Snapchat or "like" one of your photos on Instagram.

It's enough to make me long for the days of flip phones. Or bag phones. Or no phones, other than the ones that hung on the wall with long, tangled cords.

I'm part of the problem, of course. My 11-year-old has had an iPhone since last Christmas. My 9-year-old wants one ASAP since many of her friends have already had smartphones for years.

They can do things I never dreamed of as a child. They are far more technologically savvy, much better informed and, in many ways, more sophisticated than I was.

But will they be happy as teens? Will they learn to interact with others in real life? And how much worse are all these statistics going to be after five more years of research?

Questions like these, not that blue-light emanating from my ever-present smartphone, keep me awake at night.

Bob Blubaugh is the Times' news editor. Reach him at 410-857-7879 or