Smartphone Syndrome: A Millennial Mental Health Crisis

February 16, 2018   Thomas G. Kimball, PhD

This article was originally published in "The Doctor Weighs In" on February 16, 2018

Millennials were born during a period of rapid technological transformation. Most millennials have never known life without a cellular telephone or without having access to the internet. Articles abound about millennials in all fields of our society, and it’s not surprising when you consider the influence that millennials have based on their numbers:

  • The term “millennial” generally refers to those individuals who were born between 1982 and 2000 or who are currently in between the ages of 18 and 36.
  • According to the United States Census Bureau, there are now 83.1 million millennials in the United States representing one-fourth of the population
  • Millennials now outnumber the baby boomer generation (83.1 versus 75.4 million)
  • Millennials are also the most diverse group in our history with 44% of those of this generation identifying themselves as a person of color1

Some researchers and writers have identified Millennials as the first “always connected” generation. Our culture has adapted and changed due to these technological advances. One evidence of this adaptation is millennials always having access to information, an external brain, the internet. In addition, individuals of this generation also utilize text messages, instant message, and a variety of social media sites to not only stay connected to technology but also to each other.2

The mental health effects of being “always connected” have only recently started to be considered. Progress, in most any form, has long been a tried and true positive principle and concept in America. However, in the face of new evidence, we are seeing that allowing some types of progress to grow unabated can have unintended negative consequences for the generations that live through it.

Is “always connected” positive or negative?

Being “always connected” to technology, such as mobile telephones, social media, and more information on the internet than anyone could consume in a lifetime, can have both positives and negative implications for millennials. Findings from a survey conducted by Anderson and Rainie (Pew Research, 2012) highlight the opinions of stakeholders and critics in the technology field. These stakeholders were asked if they believed being “always connected” would be a positive or negative for millennials looking forward to the year 2020. The findings from the survey are compelling. Fifty-five percent of field experts surveyed believed, by the year 2020, that millennials being “hyperconnected” would yield positive results and agreed with the following statement:

In 2020, the brains of multitasking teens and young adults are “wired” differently from those over age 35, and, overall, it yields helpful results. They do not suffer notable cognitive shortcomings as they multitask and cycle quickly through personal- and work-related tasks. Rather, they are learning more, and they are more adept at finding answers to deep questions, in part because they can search effectively and access collective intelligence via the internet. In sum, the changes in learning behavior and cognition among the young generally produce positive outcomes.3

Thus, potential positive benefits include the ability to multitask and increased productivity. Also, because of being super connected the stakeholders believe millennials will be able to find the answers to “deep” questions. Thus, changes in their cognition due to being connected to technology are perceived to be positive in nature.

In contrast, 42% of stakeholders within the field surveyed believed the opposite of the above. Namely, that millennial’s brains would experience changes in their cognition that were negative in nature. This negative impact will result in millennials having cognitive shortcomings, struggle to retain information, and will spend most of their energy sending texts and using social media instead of being productive. Lacking needed social skills, they will shy away from important personal in-person interactions.3

Evidence of concern

I absolutely agree with the 42% of the experts who see the negative impact of technology on millennials due to their overuse and hyper-connectivity to the Internet including social media.

Evidence highlighting the negative impact of technology is seen in the inability of millennials to deal effectively with the stressors of life. A study conducted by Bland, Melton, Welle, and Bigham (2012) examined the lifestyle and coping skills of millennial college-aged students. College transition, as well as college life, is a good time to measure how people both experience stress and how they cope with that stress. This unique time in life can be particularly stressful due to the developmental transition from high school to college. The transition, itself, can be stressful, but this stress is often exacerbated by other stressors associated with college, such as academic pressures and social-life factors. In their survey of 246 college students, Bland, et. al. found that coping skills utilized by millennial college-aged students were ineffective in alleviating the stress they faced.4

If millennial college students cannot cope effectively with their stress, what do they do?

The difficulty millennial college students face in managing and coping with stress in productive ways often leads them to engage in unhealthy coping skills, including:

  • alcohol/drug use/abuse
  • other compulsive behaviors (e.g., gaming, self-harm, eating disorders, gambling, internet addiction, etc.)
  • the manifestation of mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Millennials and mental health disorders

Dr. Glen Geyer and colleague (July 2017) recently reported on a study he conducted on millennial college-aged students who moved away from home and transitioned into college life. They were struck by the high prevalence rates of mental health diagnoses these students reported as part of the study. He wrote:

“In our sample of over 200 college students, 59% reported having been diagnosed at some point with some psychological disorder. Note: This is not 59% reported that they sometimes feel anxious or depressed. This question very explicitly asked if they had been diagnosed with a disorder.”5

Dr. Geyer makes the point that the prevalence of diagnosed mental health disorders may be high, but the trend is clear that more millennials are suffering from mental health disorders than ever before.

True connection vs. Pseudo-connection

From the very beginning of our lives, being connected socially is one of our primary survival needs. Without being connected with those around us, we fail to thrive and move forward to reach important developmental markers. Our brains crave safe and ongoing connection with others. We need connection for our well being and mental health.

This need for connection may explain why the progression of technology has also included the advancement of more diverse ways to connect to one another through social media. It is estimated that there are over 1 billion users of social media worldwide.6

Social media creates a pseudo-connection—it is an imitation of the personal intimacy and face-to-face interaction we crave. It feels similar to the real thing, but it is not. There is something powerful about being vulnerable with someone in a safe relationship and being within physical proximity of that person. Although this intimacy and social connection may be enhanced through some technology (via telephone and web-based video conferencing), unfortunately, most social media mechanisms do not have the power to fully recreate this kind of intimacy.

The problem, as I see it, is that trying to improve and create that type of connection through social media, technological innovation, and the Internet will still fall short of providing the kind of true connection we crave and need. Moreover, increased technological connectivity and interaction may cause a plethora of other mental health and anatomical issues. As articulated in the research cited above, millennials, who are hyperconnected to technology, the internet, and social media apps, may be particularly vulnerable to dealing with stress in unhealthy ways and at risk to manifest with mental health disorders.

Individuals, families, and communities need to be aware that as amazing as technology can be, it may also be an important factor in creating a mental health crisis among millennials.

1. United States Census Bureau (2015).
2. Bull, G. (2010). The Always Connected Generation. Learning & Leading with Technology, v38 n3 p28-29.
3. Anderson, J.Q., Rainie, L. (2012). Millennials will benefit and suffer due to their hyperconnected lives. Pew Research Center.
4. Bland, H.W., Melton, B.F., Welle, P, & Bigham, L. (2012). Stress tolerance: New challenges for millennials college students. College Student Journal.
5. Geher, G. (July, 2017). The mental health crisis is on the internet generation. Psychology Today.
6. Tech Crunch.

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