(The Hill) — America’s teenagers are seeing a lot less of one another.
The share of high school seniors who gathered with friends in person “almost every day” dropped from 44 percent in 2010 to 32 percent in 2022, according to Monitoring the Future, a national survey of adolescents. Social outings for the typical eighth grader dwindled from about 2 1/2 a week in 2000 to 1 1/2 in 2021.
The nation’s teens have traded face time for Facetime. Adolescents are spending less time gathering in shopping malls, movie theaters and rec rooms, and more time connecting on Instagram, TikTok and Discord.
Some researchers see the retreat from social gatherings as key to explaining the wave of adolescent ennui that is sweeping the nation. Numerous studies have tracked rising rates of loneliness among adolescents before, during and since the COVID-19 pandemic. Last month, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared a national loneliness epidemic. And loneliness presages depression and other mental health maladies, which are also growing more prevalent among teens.
“Teens are spending a lot more time communicating with each other electronically and a lot less time hanging out with each other face to face,” said Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of “Generations,” a new book about generational differences.
“Going to the mall has gone down. Driving in the car for fun has gone down. Going to the movies has gone down,” she said. “We’re talking about kids who are spending five, six, seven hours a day on social media.”
Twenge sees a connection between the decline of adolescent gatherings and the rise of teenage loneliness.
About half of the nation’s high-school seniors met up with friends almost daily in the 1970s, when researchers at the University of Michigan began tracking their outings in the Monitoring the Future study.
In the decades since, a gradually shrinking share of teens has reported regular meetups with friends. The steepest decline commenced around 2010, just as smartphones and social media were taking hold. U.S. smartphone ownership reached 50 percent in 2012.
The loneliness epidemic arrived around the same time. A landmark 2021 study found that levels of adolescent loneliness nearly doubled between 2012 and 2018. Prior to 2012, researchers had spotted no loneliness trend.
Twenge believes the timing of the two trends, falling face time and rising loneliness, is no mere coincidence.
“If it’s not smartphones and social media that have caused the rise in teen depression, what is it?” she said. Twenge was the lead author of the 2021 study, published in the Journal of Adolescence.
Today’s teenagers may be spending more time in front of screens than any prior generation.
The average teen spent eight hours and 39 minutes on daily screen time for entertainment in 2021, up from six hours and 40 minutes in 2015, according to Common Sense Media, publisher of a closely watched Common Sense Census.
To put those numbers into perspective: An entire household watched eight hours and 55 minutes of daily television, on average, in 2009-10, the historic peak of television consumption. But researchers caution against comparing the two.
“Screen time can be so many different things,” said Amanda Lenhart, head of research at Common Sense. “There’s all sorts of ways in which these platforms can be both good for kids and bad for kids.”
Nearly half of the nation’s teens now say they are online “almost constantly,” according to Pew Research. More than half say they are effectively addicted to social media and would have a hard time giving it up.
The surgeon general, among others, has linked social media to rising depression and anxiety in teenagers.
Loneliness deepened at the height of the pandemic. Three years later, the epidemic shows few signs of abating. New survey data from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, collected in December, shows 21 percent of teens report being lonely much or all of the time.
“I think social media has been a really significant factor in this decline,” said Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer at the Harvard education school.
Weissbourd and other researchers agree with Twenge that face-to-face relationships play a large role in adolescent development.
“Friendships and relationships are very important in adolescence,” said Adam Hoffman, an assistant professor of psychology at Cornell University. Social media “can really only supplement, and cannot replace, in-person relationships. We need to have both of these.”
Both he and Weissbourd stress, however, that social media is only one of several societal forces that have afflicted the mental health of adolescents and young adults in recent years.
“Teens rank achievement pressure really high in terms of negatively influencing their mental health,” Weissbourd said. Adolescents and their families report heightened financial stress. Teens in the 2020s fret about climate change and political strife.
Causes of adolescent loneliness vary by race, class and culture.
“What’s going on with low-income kids in rural areas or low-income kids in areas of concentrated poverty is really different from what’s going on with affluent kids in suburbs,” Weissbourd said.
Social media itself is, psychologically speaking, a mixed bag.
The social maelstrom of Instagram drives some teens into depression. For other young people, social media can bring connection. Nonbinary and transgender teens, for example, have reported joy and empowerment in discovering people like themselves through social media.
“I’m thinking about a gay kid in Montana, and he’s completely on his own, and he doesn’t really know anyone he can talk to,” Hoffman said. “But he’s developed a community online, and he’s got connections with gay kids all over the country.”
Other research suggests teens may ultimately be better off with a social media life than without one.
One 2022 study found that teens reported lower self-esteem when their Internet access was poor or nonexistent. The survey also found that adolescent self-esteem suffered when parents wielded strict control over screen time.
“There’s such strong rhetoric out there about the harms associated with these screens, but to be honest, the data is so weak,” said Keith Hampton, a professor of media and information at Michigan State University and co-author of the study.
“All the data supports the notion that adolescents who spend more time using social media spend more time in person with their friends,” he said.
Twenge agrees with that point. But she also notes that teens are spending less overall face time with their friends today than before the social media era.
As a group of friends migrates from mall gatherings to Instagram, Twenge explains, its most sociable member may spend more time than the others in both in-person and virtual get-togethers. But the group still winds up spending less face time together, in the end.
“There’s a big difference between being in the same place with someone and interacting with someone electronically,” she said. “When you’re in the same room with someone in real time, you’re having a conversation, you can see the look on their face, you can touch each other, and all of these things are important for teens.”