The past decade has seen a substantial rise in anxiety and depression among adolescents and young adults.
A 2019 study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found that between 2005 and 2017, adults ages 18 to 25 saw a 71 percent increase in psychological distress and a 63 percent increase in major depression.
These trends have led some social scientists to pin the blame on new technologies. Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University and co-author of the 2019 study, has written extensively about generational shifts among millennials and Gen Z, tracing the rise of youth mental illness to the introduction of the iPhone in 2007.
Other research has similarly sounded the alarm on tech use in adolescents. A 2016 study from researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that the heaviest users of social media had the highest rates of depressive symptoms.
There’s a major hole in these conclusions, however. It’s just as likely that technology overuse is a symptom, rather than a cause, of mental illness.
If we think about heavy tech use as an addictive behavior and a maladaptive coping mechanism, rather than just a tool or a source of entertainment, we get much different ideas about why young adults spend so much time using screens.
Maia Szalavitz, a veteran journalist who has dealt with addiction in her personal life, wrote in her 2016 book “Unbroken Brain” that addiction can be understood largely as a disorder of toxic learned behaviors.
Drawing on a range of research that crosses disciplines, Szalavitz argues that dependency arises when a person habitually turns to a substance for relief — for instance, from emotional distress.
By offering 24/7 access to entertainment and communication, social media provides that kind of relief, an on-demand distraction that allows users to avoid thinking about troublesome feelings.
A 2017 study published in the academic journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking adds evidence for this theory. Researchers surveyed 449 people on their internet use patterns and administered a range of psychological tests, finding that anxiety, depression and avoidant coping strategies were substantial risk factors for “internet addiction.”
Viewed through this lens, heavy social media use is correlated with mental illness precisely because these technologies offer escape.
It doesn’t have to be only one explanation or another, of course. If tech addiction is a learned response to anxiety and depression, then overuse of tech can make these problems worse in their own right.
Using tech as a tool to avoid life stressors leaves the root problems unaddressed. Distraction and wasted time, meanwhile, can also cause problems with school, work and relationships, only exacerbating underlying issues.
What it does mean, however, is that tech alone can’t explain why so many young Americans face mental illness. The task ahead for parents and schools isn’t so simple as asking young people to put the phone away.
Nathaniel Sweet is a senior studying political science.