How Does Technology Affect Teen Health and Well-Being?

When I was teenager, my parents worried about how much and what I watched on television. They could monitor that pretty effectively, as there were only three network channels and limited options. For parents today, not only are there hundreds of channels to monitor, but teens have access to the internet, video games, social media, and more; not to mention that smartphones provide access, in the palm of their hands, to nearly anything, whenever desired. Perhaps even more important, TV is primarily a passive device, while today’s technology is interactive, connecting teens not only to friends and students worldwide, but also to bullies and predators. There is a yin and a yang to technology that is hard for parents and educators alike to balance.

In its 2015 publication “Teens, Social Media & Technology,” the Pew Research Center reported that 92 percent of teens say they go online daily, with 24 percent noting that they are online constantly. Three-quarters of responding teens own or have access to a smartphone. Of that group, 91 percent access the internet through their smartphone.

A 2011 Pew study, “Teens, Kindness and Cruelty on Social Network Sites,” explored parents’ attitudes and concerns about this connectivity. Parents responding to the survey noted that the internet and mobile devices help kids make connections to information, and friends and family, and allow children to become more independent. On the negative side, parents said it exposes kids to inappropriate content, can provide a platform for poor online behavior, and takes time away from important face-to-face interactions (see charts below).

When looking at the value of technology in learning, teachers also report that it is a bit of a double-edged sword. For example, in a Pew survey of advanced placement and writing teachers, 77 percent of teachers say the internet and digital search tools have had a mostly positive impact on their students’ research work, while conversely, 87 percent agree that technologies are creating an easily distracted generation with short attention spans. This survey uncovered both pros and cons in every area of learning in which technology has an impact about which teachers were surveyed.

Teen Depression and Suicide

Some worry that the ever-expanding obsession with technology may be more harmful, particularly for teen mental health. In a recent Atlantic feature story “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” author Jean Twenge notes that, for the generations that have grown up digital, the smartphone has radically altered “every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health.” She further states that today’s teens may be on the verge of a mental health crisis the likes of which we have never seen. Quoting statistics from the Monitoring the Future study, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Twenge reports that:
Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy. Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who devote less time to social media.

Twenge further reports that statistics show that:
  • 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.
  • As teens have started spending less time together, they have become less likely to kill one another, and more likely to kill themselves. In 2011, for the first time in 24 years, the teen suicide rate was higher than the teen homicide rate.
However, many researchers question the validity of Twenge’s conclusions. Writing in Psychology Today, Sarah Rose Cavanagh says Twenge cites correlational research showing “merely observed associations between certain variables (e.g., smartphone use and depression).” In other words, the research does not show smartphones as the cause of depression. Twenge, in a PBS interview, agreed that this is correlational research, but noted that other types of research have confirmed her findings. She also suggests that children today are growing up slower, and we should take that into account when giving them smartphones. She suggests parents wait as long as possible to provide a phone and begin with a flip phone instead of a smartphone.

The Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society

Another group of researchers who are conducting in-depth studies on the internet’s effects on today’s youth are housed at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. A group of educators and NAIS staff visited the center in August to learn more about its Youth and Media program, which researches and teaches about the challenges and opportunities for youth in this highly connected age. The center’s leaders stressed to us that they take the time to study all aspects of an issue, involving youth in their studies, so that they can report the most objective findings to the public. Their hope is that their work will shape educational, regulatory, and policy frameworks and practices. While we were there, we learned about three areas of research: digital citizenship, digital economy, and student privacy.

Although much of their research has been conducted with public schools, their resources can be very beneficial to independent school teachers and administrators in finding the balance between using technology to enhance learning and keeping students safe. One resource, Privacy & Student Data: Companion Learning Tools, offers a series of scenarios, with discussion questions and key takeaways, that schools can use to surface and explore tough questions.

For example, consider this scenario:
One day, your tech director receives a solicitation packet in the mail from Scholair, a company that specializes in “customized, cutting-edge, and cost-cutting technological interventions for school systems.” One of their new offerings is the TEABOT, a “robot that combines an educator’s intuition with law enforcement instincts to keep your halls safe, your students on the straight and narrow, and your budget in the black.” TEABOT will alert IT, the principal, and local police immediately if it sees a threat, as well as run longer-term analysis of trends in student behaviors and practices.
There are many topics for consideration and exploration embedded in this scenario, and the guide leads you through the discussion of the key ones, such as:
  • Who will have access to the information, and how will the information will be used?
  • What is the level of sensitivity of the information collected or shared with other parties and is that helpful or harmful to students? educators? the school?
  • What kind of consents and privacy protection measures must you have in place to consider this kind of approach?
Independent school educators will likely see other areas for discussion in these scenarios, such as how this technology could affect school culture and student interactions.
Berkman Klein has also developed a Digital Literacy Resource Platform that offers tools in privacy, safety, information quality, and creative expression. The platform is chock full of curricula, guides, infographics, research papers, and videos to help educators and others navigate the complexity of the digital world.

Harness What’s Good

There is no question that technology will continue to accelerate faster than our ability to anticipate and deal with the consequences. To harness the good and protect against those unintended consequences that could be harmful to children, leaders, educators, and parents alike need to follow research, engage in active discussions, and develop policies and practices that allow students the room for growth while keeping them safe.
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Donna Orem

Donna Orem is a former president of NAIS.