In 2017, psychologist Jean M Twenge decided to look at the first generation who had never known life without a smartphone. She coined the term ‘iGen’ for the group, born between 1995 and 2012, who lived most of their lives online.
The results were shocking and sparked a global conversation about the effects of online activity on mental health. The findings were published in an Atlantic magazine article entitled ‘Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?’ and found the iGen were less likely to drive, work for pay, go on dates and have sex, with a tendency to spend most of their time online during the day playing a crucial role in contributing to that.
This wasn’t just a gradual shift in behaviour from previous generations. As Twenge put it, gentle slopes in the graphs documenting emotional states of individuals through generations became sheer cliffs with the introduction of the smartphone. In her own words: “I had never seen anything like it”.
The most worrying part was that this shift to online living went hand-in-hand with sky-rocketing rates of depression and suicide, and had left iGen on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades. Three years later, her work has become an eerie precursor for what has happened to the rest of society owing to the global pandemic.
With Covid-19 accelerating the rise of remote working, online shopping and an increased tendency towards video-call socialising and maintaining contact with others solely via email and text, people have fallen out of step with engaging with others in the real world. Dr Twenge says the trends that began with iGen have been “amplified by the pandemic” and we are all getting a taste of walking in their shoes.
She warns: “We’re all iGen now – at least we have been for four months. We are out of practice with face-to-face interaction.”
As one of the world’s leading experts on the effects of online living on mental health, she says: “I can tell you that people who interact with their friends in person are happier than those who don’t, and people who spend more time online are less happy than those who don’t.
“Several studies have looked at mental health during the pandemic and all found a profound increase in depression, anxiety and mental distress compared to a year or two ago.”
If we are so miserable living our lives on screen, why are we so slow to get out, even when the Government has given the green light?
Twenge says that, in addition to health concerns, “there are two big factors. First, social media is designed to be addictive, as is most of the internet. The second element is that this is not just an issue of the individual – it’s a group problem. Let’s say a young woman spends a lot of time in her bedroom looking at her phone and wants to go out with friends. Well, if all her friends are staying at home and aren’t too keen on going out, who is she going to go out with?
“And this is something that has been ignored and is really not understood enough. You have to have a critical mass of people to go out.
“It has to be recognised we are going to need more resources for mental health. We shouldn’t be surprised by it and we need to be prepared.”