No real good can come from telling our kids their phones cause them anxiety

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My eldest child will be applying for secondary school in the autumn. Well, technically we’ll be doing the applying, and I expect he’ll mainly be playing Fifa on the Nintendo Switch, but nonetheless it’s a big deal.

We haven’t really had the pestering for a phone yet. Some kids in his class have one, and we’ve let him use my old iPhone 6 to play Wordle with a vague promise that it’ll be his further down the line, but so far it hasn’t really been something we’ve had to think about. When secondary school comes along, though, I suspect that will start to change.

The discourse at the moment is very much down on young people and the whole internet/phones/social media gestalt. Notably, the psychologist Jonathan Haidt has recently published a book, The Anxious Generation, in which he argues that there has been a very sharp change in mental health, especially among young girls, and that it is caused by the internet. And governments around the world are considering various bans or restrictions on under-18s’ use of the technologies.

I’m all for parents being cautious about their kids using the internet – it’s a big place full of weird stuff. But I think the evidence for mental health impacts of smartphones and the internet is much weaker than a lot of its proponents think, and there’s a danger that we’re making people worry unnecessarily, and perhaps even making their mental health worse as a result.

Why I think that 

First, although it’s received wisdom that there’s a great big mental health crisis at the moment, I’m not 100 per cent sure it’s true, and to the extent that it is true, I don’t think it makes sense to say “phones caused it”.

Diagnoses of mental health conditions have undoubtedly gone up. Gallup found that the people who answered yes to the question “have you ever been diagnosed with depression” went up from 19.6 per cent in 2016 to 29 per cent in 2023; other studies have found similar increases.

But I’m afraid you just can’t look at that and say there’s a real, underlying increase. By analogy: in 2000, the US Centres for Disease Control estimated that about one in every 150 children had autism-spectrum disorder. By 2020, that figure was one in 36. That’s almost certainly not because there’s an epidemic of the behavioural traits we call “autism”, but because the diagnostic criteria have changed. (And also because there’s less stigma and because there’s meaningful help available, so it’s actually worth getting a diagnosis.)

Similarly, society’s whole approach to mental health has changed in recent years. People are much more open about it and willing to seek help. Again, that’s probably a good thing, on balance, but it means diagnoses of mental health conditions, and self-reported levels, will probably be higher.

One fairly reliable, but saddening, way of keeping track of mental health issues is suicides. Haidt thinks suicides are up, especially among teen girls. But again, it’s much less clear than you might think. First, suicides in teen girls are (mercifully) very rare; they’re the least suicidal group. That means that small random changes can look very dramatic. And while suicides among young women are up in the US since about 2010, that’s also true of every age group, so your hypothesis needs to explain why middle-aged men in the Midwest are dying more too. The ready availability of opioids is probably a big part of it.

And elsewhere, the picture is much murkier. The UK saw an ambiguous uptick in suicides among young women but across the population as a whole it’s down; in lots of other places, including the Scandinavian countries, South Korea and Japan, suicides among young women are down. (This data is available at Our World in Data.) All these countries have complete smartphone saturation. If your hypothesis is that smartphones are causing suicides, you have to explain why that’s not happening in loads of other places which also have smartphones.

And other scientists have tried very carefully to look at links between internet/social media use and psychological health, and when you do that, the evidence is weak. This week a paper came out which looked at 2.4 million people around the world and found that people who use the internet more are, on average, slightly happier than those who don’t. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t bad effects for individuals, or that there isn’t something happening in the West that’s harder to spot when you look at the worldwide picture, and it did find some small negative links for young women in particular. But it makes it harder to say that there’s a huge societal catastrophe going on. Earlier research by one of the same authors looked at social media use specifically, and only found weak, ambiguous evidence of a negative impact.

We should stop scaring people

As always, if you find your own internet use is problematic, then take steps to control it. And if you’re worried about your child using the internet inappropriately, or it’s making them unhappy, then the fact that we can’t find a society-wide impact on psychological health is completely unimportant – you should do what you need to do to help your child. But I’m not convinced that there’s a catastrophe unfolding here.

What there definitely is, though, is a whole load of parents being told that their kids are being made anxious and depressed by the thing millions of them have in their hands right now. A whole load of young people’s social lives are lived through their phones – which seems fine! A whole load of my social life is lived through my phone. If we force them to stop, we will be cutting them off from their social life, and that definitely is bad for mental health.

There’s another point, which is that mental health conditions are necessarily subjective. If I feel bad, is that just normal low mood, or depression? If I’m nervous, is that normal worry, or clinical anxiety? A psychiatrist can assess you, but it’ll be partly by asking you questions or having you fill out a form, and your own assessment of your mood is crucial.

Two psychologists argued last year that mental health awareness campaigns can paradoxically lead to greater mental health problems, because they might lead people “to interpret and report milder forms of distress as mental health problems”, Similarly, telling an entire generation that they’re anxious and depressed because of smartphones could very possibly have the off-target effect of making that entire generation more anxious and depressed.

We’ll probably give our eldest a smartphone at some point between now and when he’s 13. I dare say it’ll end up causing various problems and drama. But I remember being quite capable of causing problems and drama by myself in my teens, and I didn’t get my Nokia 5110 until I was 18. By all means keep an eye on your children’s internet use, but let’s not keep telling the kids that they’re all getting anxiety off their phones.

Tom Chivers is a science writer at His new book Everything is Predictable is out now.

For practical, confidential suicide prevention help and advice call Papyrus on 0800 068 4141, text 07860 039967 or email: [email protected]. To contact Samaritans, call 116 123 or visit

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