But are they addicted? In June, the World Health Organization announced that “gaming disorder” would be included in its disease classification manual, reigniting debates over whether an activity engaged in by so many could be classified as a disorder.
Experts were quick to point out that only 1 to 3 percent of gamers are likely to fit the diagnostic criteria, such as lack of control over gaming, giving gaming priority over other activities and allowing gaming to significantly impair such important areas of life as social relationships.
Those low numbers may give the impression that most people don’t have anything to worry about. Not true. Nearly all teens, as well as most adults, have been profoundly affected by the increasing predominance of electronic devices in our lives. Many people suspect that today’s teens spend much more time with screens and much less time with their peers face-to-face than did earlier generations, and my analysis of numerous large surveys of teens of various ages shows this to be true: The number of 17- and 18-year-olds who get together with their friends every day, for example, dropped by more than 40 percent between 2000 and 2016. Teens are also sleeping less, with sleep deprivation spiking after 2010. Similar to the language in the WHO’s addiction criteria, they are prioritizing time on their electronic devices over other activities (and no, it’s not because they are studying more: Teens actually spend less time on homework than students did in the 1990s). Regardless of any questions around addiction, how teens spend their free time has fundamentally shifted.
If teens were doing well, this might be fine. But they are not: Clinical-level depression, self-harm behavior (such as cutting), the number of suicide attempts and the suicide rate for teens all rose sharply after 2010, when smartphones became common and the iPad was introduced. Teens who spend excessive amounts of time online are more likely to be sleep deprived, unhappy and depressed. Nor are the effects small: For example, teens who spent five or more hours a day using electronic devices were 66 percent more likely than those who spent just one hour to have at least one risk factor for suicide, such as depression or a previous suicide attempt.
Screen overuse is not rare. In the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2017 survey of high school students, more than 1 in 5 reported spending five or more hours of leisure time a day using electronic devices. With about 25 million 13- to 18-year-olds living in the United States, that’s about 5 million kids. Data from a survey of eighth-graders in 2016 indicates that 1 in 10 spent 40 hours a week or more — the time commitment of a full-time job — playing electronic games. That’s about 2.5 million kids. These are nationwide surveys, and the results are fairly similar across regions of the country, gender, race or ethnicity, and social class.
You don’t have to overuse screens yourself to be impacted by their ubiquity. Young people who want to talk to their friends at lunch can’t, because their friends are staring at their phones. Family dinners and vacations are constantly interrupted by texts and notifications. Teens who want to go out with their friends don’t even know how to ask because the norm for social interaction is now social media and online games, not hanging out in person.
These technologies are not going away — nor should they — but we can learn to use them in more mindful ways. Also in June, Apple announced that new controls will be introduced this fall, including software that will allow parents to limit the amount of time children spend on games or social media and to shut down their kids’ phones at bedtime. In May, Google rolled out reminders for time limits on apps. A new “digital wellness” movement, partially led by former tech executives, urges people to more carefully consider how they are spending their time. Some of their solutions have brought the wicked creativity of Silicon Valley to the quest: One add-on, called “Mortality,” is a browser tab that shows a countdown of the days you have left to live every time you use it.
In other words: Spend your time well, because it’s all you’ve got. Talk to your friends and family face-to-face, where you can see the expressions on their faces, hear the tone of their voices, feel the warmth of their hugs. Watch a sunset. Go for a run or a swim. Get some sleep. Use your phone for what it’s good for, and then put it down and go do the things that help humans thrive — which do not include playing Fortnite five hours a day.