Emerging Technologies

Is technology creating an anxious generation?

There is a rising trend of use of smartphone technology and anxiety and other disorders.

There is a rising trend of use of smartphone technology and anxiety and other disorders. Image: Unsplash/freestocks

Jessica Wanger
Deputy Head, Event Editorial, World Economic Forum
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • From 2014-2015 to 2023, the number of children who are almost constantly online roughly doubled, highlighting how technological advances have changed childhood in recent years.
  • While the data is unclear about the impacts of the sustained increase of time online, there are indications that anxiety, depression and disturbed sleep among young people have risen with the availability and access to smartphones.
  • We need novel approaches to tackle emerging harms for children and young adults and reverse the trend of a growing anxious generation.

From the advent of smartphone apps to novel incentive structures on social media, the latest technological advances mark a change in childhood and a unique set of challenges of this generation that parents are coming to acknowledge.

The data paints a complex picture: mental health issues among young people are escalating globally and while increased screen time and social media usage contribute to this trend, not all digital engagement is harmful. Experts emphasize the need for balanced technology use and redesigning digital tools to support children’s well-being. Positively, efforts are underway toward safeguarding youth mental health in an increasingly digital world.

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What the data tells us

There is no single story, according to Psychology professor Kathleen Pike, referring to children’s lived experiences, referencing author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk on how our lives and cultures are composed of many overlapping stories.

Today, there are 1.2 billion young people aged 15 to 24, accounting for 16% of the global population. So, clearly, it’s a diverse and complex story and the data largely underrepresents low- and middle-income countries, says Pike, who teaches at Columbia University.

What the data tells us rather clearly, though, is that mental health issues have been going up and are predicted to increase. In 2019, one in eight people, or 970 million people worldwide, were living with a mental disorder, with anxiety and depressive disorders the most common. In 2020, the number of people living with anxiety and depressive disorders rose by 26% and 28%, respectively.

The data also shows that children and teens aren’t immune from this rise, far from it.

The World Health Organization reports that globally, one in seven 10-19-year-olds experiences a mental disorder, accounting for 13% of the global burden of disease in this age group. Depression, anxiety and behavioural disorders are among the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents, suicide being the fourth leading cause of death among 15–29-year-olds. The rates of stress, fear and loneliness are much higher and they keep growing.

What is happening to young people today?

Nita Farahany, a leading scholar on the ethical, legal and social implications of emerging technologies at Duke University, added her perspective on what this feels like as a parent at the World Economic Forum’s 2024 Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

“I am that parent of an eight-year-old daughter and I worry that between the ages of eight and 18 – if she is like the average child – she will spend about 4.8 waking years of her life in front of a screen. That is about 4.5 waking hours a day spent in front of a screen and immersed in technology. This isn’t a speculative future; it’s the present-day reality based on data. And it’s unclear how their cognitive landscape is getting fundamentally reshaped by this reality.”

“We are at a pivotal moment,” she added. “Our children are in an ongoing experiment and we don’t know what the outcome will be – but we do have some data that helps inform us and to think differently about how technology is deployed while respecting the whole child and their well-being.”

From 2014-2015 to 2023, the number of children who are almost constantly online roughly doubled, going from three and a half hours per day to seven or more hours each day. That shows a sustained increase in time spent online rather than a temporary blip during the pandemic, as many once thought.

The share of teens who say they are online
The share of teens who say they are online Image: Pew Research Centre

There is no single cause to this sustained increase but social media is part of the story.

While the data about the impacts of more time online is not perfectly clear, an increasing trend is evident. As the availability and access to smartphones have increased, so too has the incidence of anxiety, depression and disturbed sleep.

Addressing harm

The cause isn’t obvious, nor is the correlation with screen time – some of that increased time online is due to a rise in creativity, connectivity and opportunity for learning and immersion. However, it is intriguing, as Farahany highlights, that a study of college students limiting their screen time to 30 minutes per day revealed that after three weeks, they reported far lower degrees of depression and loneliness.

Part of this improved mental well-being seems attributable to better sleep but is unlikely the sole reason.

So, what must we do to tackle emerging harms for children and young adults and reverse the trend of a growing anxious generation?

“Part of the problem is that these platforms are being intentionally designed with cognitive constructs to drive increased engagement and use,” says Farahany, highlighting features such as autoplay or intermittent rewards that gamify the experience on social media and create peer pressure.

Technology does not have to be like that if we can design it in a way that respects the child and all its layers and recognizes that the constant use of technology cannot be their entire story. It must recognize that their interaction and connection with each other and nature are critical.

“Trying to design a world for a ‘whole child’ approach must involve the redesign of technology,” adds Farahany but to get there we have to recognize that not all screen time is harmful – the key is balance.

“Encouraging active use of technology rather than passive use. Its about recognizing where the benefits are and how technology can be aligned with children.”

Important efforts are underway to make that happen.

We must look at technology design and redesign, from privacy-first social media platforms to technologies that focus on empowering children rather than entrapping them.

Jessica Wagner, Deputy Head, Event Editorial, World Economic Forum

Child-first initiatives

Finland has intentionally designed its curriculum to prepare children from as early as pre-school to counter misinformation and disinformation by integrating technology in ways that help them develop discernment, skill and mental agility.

Non-profit organization Common Sense Education, similarly, has a digital citizenship curriculum that teaches children the basics of digital literacy, how it impacts them and how they can make choices to empower themselves for a digital future.

These actions will help prepare children for a world of increased digital immersion. However, there is more that can be done.

We must look at technology design and redesign, from privacy-first social media platforms to technologies that focus on empowering children rather than entrapping them.

A fundamental new set of industry standards around kids’ codes that consider their unique vulnerabilities and foster and favour their empowerment, alongside robust policy frameworks that protect children seek to address gaps. For example, new rules in China to strengthen protections for children online and the European Union’s child-first policies focus on how to benefit children with increased mental health resources and funding.

We need more of these efforts and a collective focus on improving youth mental health. We are seeing a clear story of parents overprotecting children in the real world while underprotecting them in the virtual world, social psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt concludes, adding a clear call to action for parents, teachers, friends and relatives who want to help improve the mental health of children and adolescents.

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