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iPhones and social media: is there a problem?

Updated: Aug 22

They are as part of the secondary school student's daily possessions as the rucksack, the pencil case and the hastily forged, excuse note. But what does research tell us about the implications of iphone use (with quick social media access) for student welfare and behaviour?

What might a reactionary view to iphone/smartphone usage amongst secondary school students sound like? The iphone or smartphone is the scourge of a generation. It is ruining their concentration and affecting their life chances. They cannot socialise properly because staring at a screen means that they lose the art of conversation. Teenagers are addicted, partly because their undeveloped brains are not self disciplined enough to put their beloved device down occasionally. Worse, it’s affecting their mental well-being to the point where they don’t sleep, have a poor self-image and are even becoming depressed and suicidal in ever increasing numbers.

Is there research evidence for any of this?

Actually, there is some evidence for this.

Jean Twenge’s recent publication iGen offers arguments and research into trends affecting (what she refers to as) the internet generation (iGen for short): they were born after 1995 and subsequently do not recall a time when the internet was not available to the general population. Interestingly, this date is old enough to include some of our colleagues presently working in the profession. (By the way I wonder what Twenge might have called my own generation: ‘Star Wars Gen’, ‘Thatcherism Gen’ or, worse still, 'EU Gen'). Twenge’s book provides some fascinating evidence about the implications of smartphone/iphone usage. I will use the terms 'smartphone' and 'iphone' interchangeably.

What does research say about social media and related smartphone usage amongst younger generations?

According to Twenge, iGen high school seniors spend six hours a day on new media (cell phone texting, online gaming, Internet and video chatting) with “2 ¼ hours a day texting on their cell phones” (Twenge, 2017, p. 51). Of course, six hours, including Internet usage, could mean learning how to play a musical instrument using youtube videos or watching educational documentaries. Previous generations might have spent a similar amount of time watching television or VHS videos and so, in itself, this figure is not necessarily concerning. Still, the two and a half hours a day texting inevitably means that the cell phone is being actively used for mainly social, but not face to face, interaction. It stands out as a particularly high amount of time. It also seems likely that some of this texting takes place whilst doing other things.

As Twenge points out, social networking actually dates back to the early 2000s. Facebook, for instance, became commonly used in 2004 and opened up to over thirteen year olds in 2006 (Twenge, 2017, p. 54). What has changed though is that the number of teenagers using social networking every day has risen considerably. This applies to girls more than boys: “87% of twelfth grade girls used social media sites almost every day in 2015” (Twenge, 2017, p. 54).

An increase in social media use likely concides with an increase in iphone use since social media is so easily facilitated by newer devices. Moreover, a key statistic from Twenge’s book is simply the year 2012: it was 2012 when smartphone usage became widespread in the US. This same year witnesses several other trends, including the sudden decrease in teens meeting up with friends face to face (Twenge, 2017, p. 72). The concern is that iphone ownership inevitably goes hand in hand with decreased face to face, social interaction.

Much data cited in Twenge's book is correlational. There is no clear evidence that smartphone usage causes decreased interaction or increased online activity. Still, when dealing with such new trends, like smartphone and social media usage, it is hardly surprising that little causal evidence exists; early research will typically search for links before it can determine causality. Furthermore, all online activity is not necessarily detrimental; it can be a source of information and valuable interaction. Nevertheless, Twenge’s book raises an important question for teachers: what impact is social media engagement having on student learning and welfare?

Does the smartphone/iphone affect mental health?

Experimental evidence has offered data on mental illness and social media usage (again smartphone usage is an integrated behaviour). For instance, in a study of Danish students, those who were assigned to a ‘stop using Facebook condition’ reported feeling happier and less depressed in just a week (Twenge, 2017, p. 79). Younger teens suffer more: the chances of being unhappy following ten or more hours of social media use is greater for eighth graders than twelfth graders.

Perhaps most disturbing of all, Twenge reveals that smartphone usage is a predictor in US suicide rates. For instance, when the number of hours spent using a smartphone increases to four hours or more it positively correlates with the percentage of users who experience at least one suicide risk factor (Twenge, 2017, p.85). At the same time Twenge’s graph (p. 85) also shows that under one hour’s usage coincides with a fall in the percentage of those with a suicide risk factor. Some social media usage can be beneficial perhaps; hyper-usage is the detrimental trend.

Does iphone usage strengthen or weaken social relationships?

If a greater number of interactions take place over social media amongst younger people it might follow that their ability to establish face to face interactions, in the workplace and socially, might be impaired. A group of sixth graders who were denied technology faired better in social skills tests than a control group who continued to have normal technology access (Twenge, 2017, p. 90).

The implied problem with indirect communication through a smartphone on social media is the loss of face to face interaction, arguably a fundamental evolutionary trait. The seminal year, 2012, saw a negative correlation between smartphone ownership and unemployment rates: perhaps the absence of face to face interaction has a negative impact on how social media users can attain and keep a job.

Many US teenagers interviewed in research express how social media is integral to constructing a desirable self image. It’s a place to post pictures, see what other people are doing and receive feedback. Interview evidence suggests that teenagers, especially girls, rely on positive comments towards selfies and photographs for affirmation. So being a social media user is one thing, being dependant on it for a sense of identity and meaning is another.

Final thoughts

Whilst Twenge's book cites research involving young adults (up to 24), the concern here relates to how new technologies affect secondary school aged children, especially below 16. There has to come a point where everybody is considered old enough to make sensible choices and this is not intended to be a smartphone, scare story for all.

Twenge’s book is a highly recommended read for secondary school teachers and there should be a copy in every school library. Most schools include a staff development section of their library and this is the sort of book which offers recent research into the prevalent issue of social networking, smartphone usage and new technology attitudes in younger generations. A slightly old fashioned, technophobic, teacher who thinks that iplayer is cutting edge (me basically) should read Twenge’s book. For those colleagues who are also parents it will be especially prescient.

Younger generations are spending increasing time on social media and, by implication, their iphones/smartphones. Such usage may have implications for the pastoral welfare, class learning, home learning and mental and physical health of the secondary school students we teach (even if this is not an established causal effect).

Secondary school students might be using smartphones widely, but the effects differ with age. It may cause greater detrimental effects on year seven to nine students whose identities are less mature. It leads me to wonder whether ownership of a smartphone under the age of 16 should even be legal.

Don’t be too surprised at all if those students experiencing mental health issues use their smartphones for several hours a day (at least four). This is not to say that increased smartphone usage is a cause of mental illness, but it certainly serves as a useful predictor. Asking unhappy students how much time they spend on their smartphone a day (the settings tell you this) might lead to some good suggestions about how they might improve their mood by limiting their access.

Each school probably needs a specific and separate smartphone policy, alongside its policies on, drugs, bullying and inclusion.


Twenge, J. (2017) iGen: Why Today’s Superconnected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – And Completely Unprepared For Adult-hood (Atria Books, New York)

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