I’m an expert on adolescence: here’s why a smartphone ban isn’t the answer, and what we should do instead

 <span>Illustration: Eiko Ojala/The Guardian</span>
Illustration: Eiko Ojala/The Guardian

When I was 13, two of my friends were arrested for shoplifting. Along with two boys in our year, they had decided to bunk off school – our suburban grammar school renowned for its academic excellence – and get the train to a shopping centre nearby. The day had been going well until they reached HMV, where a security guard asked them about the CDs they had hidden in their coats. Cue a call to the police, and some time in a cell at the local police station. By the end of the day, news had travelled to the rest of us via an SMS on our Nokia 3310s and we gathered at one of our houses to discuss the situation. Most of us were crying.

It was but one dramatic moment in a lawless year. In year 7 we had been a fairly risk-taking group, but in the spring of year 8, a new girl joined our school and her arrival set things on fire. Beside the shoplifting habit, there was a lot of alcohol, stolen from parents’ cupboards or bought for us by strangers on the high street or by older siblings. We drank where teenagers have always drunk: in parks at night or during unsupervised parties at home. Blacking out was not uncommon, and more than once someone ended up in A&E. There was a lot of smoking, too, cigarettes and weed, and a lot of arguing about boys and each other (more crying there, too).

I remember going through all of this with a sort of stunned horror: confused about why it was all happening, terrified that something would go wrong or I’d get into trouble, but desperate to fit in with my friends. In hindsight, our behaviour that year was so typically teenage as to be cliched, almost banal, but that didn’t make it any easier to live through. Year 8, for its sheer volatility combined with our immense vulnerability, was one of the wildest years of my life.

Fast forward 23 years, and a new public narrative about adolescents has taken hold. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s new book, Anxious Generation, focuses on a significant problem: rates of anxiety and other mental health problems are increasing in this generation of teenagers. He links this to the emergence of social media and a decline in exploratory play, and says that we can solve the problem by banning smartphones for under-14s and social media for under‑16s. There is a huge appetite for this narrative: political leaders and grassroots parent-led groups alike are calling for bans. Haidt’s book has gone straight to the top of bestseller lists because, well, his argument just sort of feels right – look at all those teenagers glued to their phones, listen to the accounts of self-harm images, cyberbullying and sexting gone wrong. They’re suffering, and of course it’s their phones.

Except that psychological science (and life) is rarely this neat. Many other changes have coincided with the increase in teenagers reporting rising mental health problems: for example an increase in obesity, an increase in academic pressure and the Covid pandemic, all of which are associated with worse mental health. Haidt’s theory about social media is relevant, but it’s likely to be one piece of a large and complicated puzzle.

We need to ask more nuanced questions about who exactly is vulnerable to experiencing problems from social media

There is also the critical and often overlooked fact that public discourse around mental health has transformed. Adolescents today are taught about mental health in schools and universities and inundated with public awareness campaigns. This shift will itself have contributed to the increase in reported rates of mental health problems – because more teenagers are now accurately seeking help, but also because others will mislabel lower levels of distress as a mental health problem: both of these will bump up overall rates. I am certain that, had my friends and I been given anxiety questionnaires to fill out in year 8, our scores would have been off the scale. But teenage mental health wasn’t measured much then, so it didn’t make the headlines.

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When trying to understand the cause of adolescent mental health problems, current conversations pursue what is new and different about this generation. This matters to an extent – we are trying to understand an apparent increase, after all – but focus on the new too much and we risk missing a vital point: being an adolescent is, and always has been, really, really hard.

I recently wrote a book about this period of life, and alongside descriptions of the latest research, I included plenty of interviews with adults looking back on their own teenage years. I was struck by how powerful and self-shaping their adolescent memories were even decades later. But I was also fascinated by how similar the struggles were across the generations, whatever age people were now. A 48-year-old interviewee, who went to an all-boys school he likened to Lord of the Flies, summed it up thus: “My adolescence was full of anxiety, just like everyone else’s.”

Whatever the historical context or technological era, adolescence is bewildering to live through because of the monumental transformation that must take place. At the start of adolescence, there is a child, small and vulnerable, reliant on their parents or carers. By the end, that child typically emerges as an independent adult, capable of having sex, reproducing and navigating complex social relationships and the world at large. That’s a huge shift, and the changes that happen in our brains and bodies to help us get there are the same things that can make adolescence so difficult.

When puberty kicks off, it’s as though a flashing red light turns on in the brain, telling adolescents to care about one thing above all else: their peers. It’s a running joke that teenagers succumb to peer pressure and are obsessed with copying their friends, but this has a clear evolutionary purpose. To survive beyond the family unit, to integrate with a new social group and find a sexual partner, it’s imperative that an adolescent spends a lot of time thinking about what their peers think about them and whether or not they fit in with their friends. In my own adolescence, as with everyone else’s, no one was smoking or getting drunk on their own – they were doing these things with, and because of, their friends.

But to add fuel to the fire, at the exact moment that this light turns on, something huge happens in the outside world. Young people move to secondary school and their social context is transformed. In 1961, the sociologist James Coleman wrote that, with the move to secondary education, adolescents were “dumped into a society of peers”, and that’s still as true today. Adolescents spend most of their days with their peers, within and beyond the school gates, far less supervised than they were in primary school. Just as pubertal hormones are kicking in – driving teenagers to form deep friendships, fall in love, try sex, skip school to go shoplifting – adolescents are dropped into the very arena where all these urges can be enacted.

Sometimes, this biological and social pressure cooker can produce wonderful experiences and memories. The people that I interviewed for my book told me about teenage friendships that saved them, about love affairs that made them better people, about exhilarating adventures that made them feel alive. But the same drives that make adolescence wonderful can also make it terrible, and people told me stories about that, too: about being relentlessly bullied, having a regretted first experience of sex, or being rejected by someone they loved.

When things like this happen in the teenage years, they have always caused enormous amounts of psychological pain. Being rejected, humiliated or ignored by other teenagers has always led to distress and misery, because the one thing the young person is longing for – to be accepted by others – has been crushed. At a time when self-development is in flux, adolescents internalise the messages they receive from peers, and a bad evaluation can be devastating. We have known for decades that, when things go badly wrong, a minority of teenagers will be at risk of mental health problems or mental illness. None of this is new.

That doesn’t make the issue of phones irrelevant today. Social media has transformed social interactions for everyone: you have more people to compare yourself with, you can edit and curate how you present yourself to the world, and you can quantify how well liked you are – or not – by your peers. When embarrassing things happen, they happen in front of a bigger audience, and videos or images of the incident can be replicated and shared. It’s reasonable to research whether these changes make life meaningfully worse for teenagers, who care so deeply about peer relationships, and how we might help them to navigate this.

Related: The Anxious Generation wants to save teens. But the bestseller’s anti-tech logic is skewed

Yet it’s an oversimplification to blame social media for the rise in adolescent mental health problems. First, there are many other factors at play. Second, social media affects individual teenagers differently. The majority of teenagers do not have mental health problems, and do have social media, so clearly it’s possible to use social media without incurring notable harm. Some young people are merely unbothered by social media, but some will benefit from it. Teenagers use social media to enjoy all the aspects of friendship that exist offline: providing and receiving social support, being validated, having fun.

This is especially important for marginalised or minority groups of adolescents – such as those who are autistic, LGBTQ+ or have chronic health problems. For some teenagers, the internet has opened up a new social world, allowing them to understand themselves and foster relationships in a way that wasn’t possible before. There are at least some young people who will be happier with social media than without it.

When understanding the overall impact of social media on mental health, this has to be taken into account. Instead of assuming that social media is bad for everyone, we need to ask more nuanced questions about who exactly is vulnerable to experiencing problems from this technology and what ancient adolescent drive is being activated in any specific scenario: this kind of work is starting to happen. When we do this, we can make use of the extensive existing research knowledge about adolescent suffering and how to manage it, rather than throwing our hands up in the face of something that seems entirely new.

Teenagers use social media for providing and receiving support, being validated, having fun

There is also a need to be pragmatic, because social media isn’t going away. In my view, a social media ban would be impossible to enforce, and would not even reliably improve adolescent mental health. Some teens will still get their hands on a phone: handed down by a sibling, bought secondhand or given by a parent who is less concerned about all this. In fact, if you make smartphones or social media officially adult-disapproved, they will become more desirable. My prediction is that an attempted ban them would lead to a two‑tier society within schools and friendship groups: those with and those without smartphones and social media. The possible social exclusion of the have-nots could cause its own problems. And teenagers will still have access to tablets and computers, because that’s how the world is run now, so they could access social media there. The internet is integrated into adolescence, and has been for many years.

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So what should we do instead? Rates of mental health problems in young people are unacceptably high and seem to be increasing, and at least some individuals are negatively affected by social media. There are straightforward steps that tech companies could take to limit the most obvious dangers from their platforms, such as removing images of self-harm and other graphic content. In parallel, parents can help teens navigate what they find hard about social media: by being interested in what their teenager is doing, by teaching them the basics of online safety, and by supporting them to be open about what happens to them or what they see.

It might also help if adults reframed what they thought about phones. The sight of a teenager glued to their screen should be interpreted not as a sign of them being ensnared by a new digital “addiction”, but rather a visible manifestation of them caring about what young people have always cared about: their peers. Adults should see phones not as a threat to their relationship with a young person, or a mysterious black box they will never understand, but instead as something more familiar: in what way is this situation tapping into an age-old adolescent phenomenon that I already understand, and probably experienced myself?

Related: I’m a psychologist with a history of anxiety. Treating it as a permanent problem might make young people feel worse | Lucy Foulkes

We should also care a lot about the messages we share about young people’s mental health, and whether that’s adding to the problem. It has become unfashionable to say this, but many teenagers are OK. Some are even happy. With the right help – which may involve mental health support – even those who are struggling enormously can find a way through their challenging years.

So many books and articles say that today’s teenagers are a lost generation, uniquely doomed. Teenagers read this stuff, too, and will absorb the message. I don’t think today’s teenagers are the anxious generation. I think they are teenagers, navigating the enormous challenges of adolescence and expressing it with the language that adults have given them.

When I interviewed adults about their adolescent years for my book, I was left with a resounding feeling of hope, and that message needs to be promoted. Many people face exceptional hardship in their adolescence, whether or not they grew up with social media. Even my own relatively privileged teenage years were fraught with difficult feelings and situations. But with patience, compassion and support, young people can emerge as healthy, well-adjusted adults. They are more resourceful and resilient than we give them credit for. We should respect and acknowledge the complexity of their lives, including the elements now mediated via a screen. To dismiss them as an anxious generation lost to their phones is to flatten who they are and what it means to be an adolescent. As with every adult who has gone before them, they are so much more than that.

• Coming of Age: How Adolescence Shapes Us by Lucy Foulkes is published by Bodley Head on 4 July (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

• Lucy Foulkes is an academic psychologist at the University of Oxford