Collectively, I’m sorry to say, we’re not doing too well. You probably already sense that in your own general malaise, but here’s some data to either affirm your state or make you feel worse about it. In one 50-year survey of our satisfaction, the percentage of Americans who report feeling happy with their lives just hit a record low. Teenagers seem to be fairing among the worst: According to a recent survey from the CDC, three in five teenage girls and one-and-a-half out of five teenage boys reported persistent sadness in 2021. Such striking data has spawned much speculation, and one common theory is that young people are depressed because they’re on their phones too much.
It should be obvious that there is no single neat, cohesive explanation for our shared depression. Economic precarity, inequality, fears of climate change, sexual violence, and the pandemic—literally, pick anything in the news over the last three years—have contributed, and it varies from person to person. There are dozens of good reasons to feel like a doomer that have nothing to do with phones, and we have every right to be upset about them. But it’s also totally OK to be mad about the fact that it’s become the norm to devote your leisure time almost exclusively to a 6” by 2” screen that has rewired your dopamine like a little rat trained to press a lever for food.
Your phone is making you depressed. It’s not your fault; there’s no reason to be defensive about it. But just because it’s not the sole cause doesn’t mean it’s not real. I don’t care if I sound like your uncle who was able to work part-time to pay for college then bought a house on an entry-level salary telling you to just pull up your bootstraps. Your phone isn’t making you happy.
It’s not your fault; there’s no reason to be defensive about it. But just because it’s not the sole cause doesn’t mean it’s not real.
We spend more time alone than ever, a stat that correlates with heightened rates of loneliness and the rising ubiquity of smartphones. It’s naive not to question whether there is some causal relationship between being alone, feeling lonely, and increasingly spending time on our phones. We’re deluding ourselves by acting like there’s nothing going on there. We all know we’re devoting too many hours to our phones and don’t feel good about it. Americans, on average, spend 4.8 hours per day on their phones, with teenagers spending up to 8.2. Meanwhile, surveys of people aged 13-39 show that technology over-dependence/addiction ranks second among the perceived biggest problems of the demographic.
Every old critique—that people online are the worst versions of themselves, that the internet breeds narcissism, that Instagram is shallow, that our phones are a fruitless time-suck—has not only contained some truth but has become more warranted. Social media is not the same today as a decade ago, when the primary critiques were about Kim Kardashian’s selfies or the frequency of food pictures on Instagram. It really is an endless source of cheap, unfulfilling entertainment designed strategically to keep you looking as long as possible. It can be an infinite source of jealousy, comparison, and impossible standards, exposing us to exorbitant wealth and altered beauty with the expectation that we should hold ourselves to the same standard. In many ways, our perception of the absolutely horrid state of things (which is, again, often accurate) is dictated entirely by the attitudes we see shared online. The internet is perhaps the ugliest lens through which we can see the world. Even if phones aren’t the direct cause of our unhappiness, it’s absurd to look at the reality of our phone usage and think it’s helping.
But what are we supposed to do, touch grass? As others have rightly pointed out, third spaces—locations outside of home and work/school where one can exist freely—have deteriorated. There are few opportunities for real-world socialization, especially in the wake of COVID-19 pushing everyone indoors in 2020. Resigning ourselves to socializing through our phones is, at very least, not going to help build new spaces and communities to engage in social life.
But what are we supposed to do, touch grass? As others have rightly pointed out, third spaces—locations outside of home and work/school where one can exist freely—have deteriorated. There are few opportunities for real-world socialization, especially in the wake of COVID-19 pushing everyone indoors in 2020. But resigning ourselves to socializing through our phones is, at very least, not going to help build new spaces and communities to engage in social life.
Let’s call our instinct to stand by our chronic phone usage what it is: cope. We act like phones aren’t part of the problem because we can’t envision our days looking any other way, our hobbies and interactions utilizing any other medium. Just because it’s not our fault that there are a million things to be depressed about and our lives are increasingly mediated by our phones doesn’t mean we have to sit back and continue to scroll for half our waking life. For the love of God, let’s have a little agency. It’s as though we’re choosing to punish ourselves. It takes some discipline, yes, but setting specific time limits on apps, choosing to only use your phone between specific hours, and turning off notifications are tangible ways of shifting our relationship with technology to at least attempt to not be as miserable. At very least, let’s be honest enough to bitch about it. And maybe, yes, we ought to consider actually touching some grass.
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