The Unique Challenges of the iGen

4 min read

Girl, Taking photos, Smartphone image.


“If you ever need to reach Amy, just text her. I think her phone is glued to her body.” I was told by the father of the 15-year-old girl (Amy is not her real name) who was referred to me for a worsening depression. As a psychologist, I am seeing more and more teens with serious mental health problems in which smartphone usage likely plays a role.

Amy’s situation is not unique, both with regard to her intimate smartphone connection and her depression. According to Pew Research Center (2022), 95 percent of teens have access to a smartphone. This alone, of course, is not the problem. Smartphones can be a wonderful way to stay connected; keep a teen safe and reach them quickly, as well as have access to a world of knowledge.

The problem lies more in excessive use and the impact it is having on the mental health of our children and grandchildren. Here are some of the things psychologists (and parents) have seen since the rise of the smartphone:

Negative Social Comparisons

  • The use of social networking sites may contribute to depression and anxiety in teens as a result of negative comparisons with peers (and celebrities), resulting in a pessimistic self-evaluation. Our teens compare the worst of themselves to the best of others, feeling that they come up short. Adolescents struggle with trying to present an honest assessment of their lives online with having to impress others through a flawless narrative. This is a lot of pressure, and obviously unrealistic.

Substitution of Digital Media Use Over Real-Life Encounters

  • Many teens now prefer texting over face-to-face encounters. The pandemic made this worse since in-person connection became more difficult. If your teen is already socially anxious, substituting digital media in this way promotes avoidance of the feared stimulus (socializing) and promotes a worsening of that anxiety. Simply put, they are not learning the real-world skills they will need to connect successfully with others.

Deficits in Emotional Regulation

  • If you have seen the teens in your life reach for their phones when upset or bored, they may be utilizing their phones almost like a digital security blanket. Researchers suggest that adolescents are seeking digital distraction from distressing emotions, thereby avoiding that emotional experience. The problem is that successful emotional regulation is a crucial component of mental health and overall success in navigating a difficult world. If teens are relying more on their phones for this function, they may not be developing that self-regulation for themselves.

Sleep Deprivation

  • Perhaps the most practical concern related to smartphone usage is that teens are sleeping less, which is largely related to smartphone usage. It is not unusual for the last and first action of a teen’s day to be reaching for her smartphone. Even worse, our kids are getting less sleep than they were 10 years ago. Many teens even sleep with their phones. For instance, my patient Amy slept with it under her pillow. Lack of sleep is a contributing factor to many adverse health and mental health events, including depression and anxiety.

It used to be that grounding an adolescent meant that she could not go to the mall or have a sleepover. More and more, it means taking her phone away. When Amy’s phone was taken away, she became despondent and felt cut off from friends and the outside world. Emotionally, we had to work to help her rely less on her phone and make more connections outside the digital world. Practically, we had to get the phone out of her bedroom so she could get enough sleep, a difficult task in its own right due to increased homework and extracurricular demands, which is an important topic for another blog post.

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