Smartphones and mental health

Looking at what we know about the link between smartphone use and lower mental health/wellbeing in adolescents - but I'd add adults in, too

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Because I'm writing the book LIFE ONLINE just now, my folders and timelines are full of articles, research and books about the effects of (over-)use of social media via smartphones. So I've started to write some blog posts drawing my thoughts together. Here is my most recent post, with some other links at the end. 

For clarity, please note two things:

1. I LOVE my smartphone and use social media a lot. I think they are exciting and full of opportunities for great benefits. But the wondrousness mustn't blind us to some downsides.

2. In my opinion, adults need to follow exactly the same advice. For two reasons: a) the possible downsides of social media/smartphone over-use are the same b) adults are often setting a very bad example and young people imitate. It's like saying "Don't smoke - it's bad for you" while puffing smoke in their faces.


Very useful (in other words, I agree with it!) article in latest issue of The Atlantic: Has the Smartphone Destroyed a Generation?

This is not the usual journalistic exaggeration, reactionary attack on young people’s behaviour or clickbait headline. This is written by someone who has been studying generational shifts for 25 years, Jean M. Twenge, whose forthcoming book, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us (published Sept 7th 2017 in the UK and a month earlier in the US) is preordered, to add to my large pile of books on this subject. Mind you, I can see it’s going to be saying what I’ve been saying for some time while desperately seeking evidence to the contrary. I’m an optimist – a worrier maybe but an optimistic worrier. Or a worried optimist. I see no value in pessimism but I do see a value in worrying. An optimistic worrier does something about the things that are worrying.

As I read that article, everything was familiar. It echoes what I’ve been observing – while not being the trained coal-face researcher that Twenge is – for some years now. One part in particular uncannily confirms a theory I had 3-4 years ago and have spoken about, including in my Edbookfest talk two years ago, What is the 21st Century Doing to our teenagers?.


In 2005, Blame My Brain was first published, after I’d become known as a teenage novelist. It was the first book in the world to explain the teenage brain to teenagers themselves. (Though very often bought by adults.) This was brand new science, straight from the scientists who first fMRI-scanned hundreds of teenage brains – later thousands – to posit and confirm what we now know: that there are biological, universal changes that occur to propel children towards adulthood, mirrored in other mammals such as rats and monkeys. It’s not only hormones but neurons. Blame My Brain covers: sleep, emotions, gender, the dark side (depression, self-harm etc), risk-taking and the maturing analytical capabilities.

Over the following year or two I was often asked to come into schools to talk to teenagers, and sometimes staff and parents, about the teenage brain.

So far, so unremarkable.

My next books were more teenage novels – The Highwayman’s Footsteps, Highwayman’s Curse, Deathwatch and Wasted – so I was going into schools to talk about fiction again. The talks about teenage brains faded a bit as I couldn’t do both.

So far, still so unremarkable.

Then, in about 2012, I noticed that I was suddenly getting invitations to speak about teenage brains. This was a bit remarkable, as I hadn’t written anything more about that since 2005. But what was most noticeable was that, every time these invitations came, the organiser would add: “And can you say something about teenage stress?”

I’d never spoken or written about teenage stress and I suddenly realised that yes, this now seemed like a major omission. When I’d written BMB, it hadn’t been a “thing”. Of course, it existed, but it wasn’t a Big Thing to Talk About. It wasn’t special. And once I started to think about it, I realised there was a lot to say. I’d suffered stress as a teenager and young adult, with loads of time off school/work, and I knew how this felt, but now I was seeing it all around me. And schools had obviously noticed it as a major problem that they wanted help with.

In response, The Teenage Guide to Stress was published in 2014. And my career since has been firmly embedded in this topic. The Teenage Guide to Friends followed in 2016. Positively Teenage (Hachette/Wayland) and Life Online (Walker Books) come next.

But meanwhile I asked myself, “What has happened to cause what looks like a surge in stress levels of our young people? What has increased the quantity and quality of negative stress responses?”

I had a sense that it was to do with the Internet but that did answer it properly. After all, the Internet had been around for long enough that the stress, if the Internet was increasing it, should have been seen ten years earlier. Then I realised that it wasn’t the Internet but the uptake of Smartphones, allowing us to access the Internet and all the Apps and social media platforms almost instantly, almost wherever we are. We – or very many of us – are virtually never disconnected.

You can imagine therefore, how I was struck by this, from Twenge’s article: “Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs, and many of the distinctive characteristics of the Millennial generation began to disappear. In all my analyses of generational data—some reaching back to the 1930s—I had never seen anything like it. // … // What happened in 2012 to cause such dramatic shifts in behavior? It was after the Great Recession, which officially lasted from 2007 to 2009 and had a starker effect on Millennials trying to find a place in a sputtering economy. But it was exactly the moment when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent.”


Many parents worry only about the safety angle on the online world their young people are growing up in. (Though some don’t worry enough, assuming that because their teenagers are in their bedrooms instead of on the streets, they are “safe”, when they are quite likely not to be safe at all.) Or about the cyber-bullying angle, which is, of course, deeply unpleasant and worth worrying about. Or about distraction, loss of concentration, and many, many other pitfalls that I am also concerned about and have researched.

But we need to worry more about wellbeing and mental health. We think our phones make us happy, because it often feels as though they do, but, as Twenge points out: “There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy. … You might expect that teens spend so much time in these new spaces because it makes them happy, but most data suggest that it does not. The Monitoring the Future survey, funded by the [US] National Institute on Drug Abuse and designed to be nationally representative, has asked 12th-graders more than 1,000 questions every year since 1975 and queried eighth- and 10th-graders since 1991. The survey asks teens how happy they are and also how much of their leisure time they spend on various activities, including nonscreen activities such as in-person social interaction and exercise, and, in recent years, screen activities such as using social media, texting, and browsing the web. The results could not be clearer: 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.”

Twenge’s article gives many more examples and I very much urge you to read it. She also points out, absolutely correctly, that it’s not necessary that a young person (and I’d add adult, too, because you know I’m equally concerned about adult online wellbeing) on social media will be unhappy. Many people avoid the pitfalls beautifully – though I suspect most people need guidance as to why it’s important and also help to stay healthy online, as it is so easy to over-use our smartphones, as I’ve argued elsewhere. I’m always at pains to point out the huge benefits of being connected to other people so easily and, for the record, how much I love using my phone and social media opportunities. Those of us who are flagging up the downsides – not just me and Jean Twenge, but also Sherry Turkle (Reclaiming Conversation), Donna Freitas (The Unhappiness Effect), danah boyd (It’s Complicated), Allison Havey and Deana Puccio (Sex, Likes and Social Media) and others, know the attractions and benefits of this wonderful technology. Besides, it’s here and it’s not going away. We need to get over that and work out how to survive and thrive with it.


  1. Read the Atlantic article in full
  2. Read my recent posts – Stop Bingeing Pt 1Stop Bingeing Pt 2 and my resources page here
  3. Follow my blog – sign up button to the right – because I’ll be bringing you loads more information
  4. Consider how you –  you yourself and any young people in your care – can implement my Six Steps to Online Wellbeing pledge. I’ve explained this in more detail in Stop Bingeing Pt 2.
  5. If you’re a parent, be strong: treat this as being as important as healthy eating, exercising and sleeping. It’s your job to do everything you can to help your young person grow up learning how to look after themselves, mentally and physically. It’s not easy and it won’t always work and sometimes other pressures will be too great, but you can’t run away from it. When no needs to be said, say no. I have offered strategies in Stop Bingeing Pt 2. 
  6. Interact with me – here on on my own blog or via Twitter as @NicolaMorgan - I want to know what you think. Whether you agree or disagree or want to add some advice, please do!





Nicola Morgan

Author and speaker about adolescence, -

Nicola Morgan is a multi-award-winning author for and about teenagers and an renowned speaker at conferences and schools around the world. Her classic book on the teenage brain, BLAME MY BRAIN – THE TEENAGE BRAIN REVEALED, was followed by THE TEENAGE GUIDE TO STRESS and THE TEENAGE GUIDE TO FRIENDS and innovative multimedia teaching resources on the brain and mental health, BRAIN STICKS™, STRESS WELL FOR SCHOOLS and EXAM ATTACK. Her next books are POSITIVELY TEENAGE (May) and LIFE ONLINE (June). She writes articles at