Technology has exploded in the past two decades to the point where smartphones and mobile devices are essential to day-to-day functions. You can control your thermostat, garage door, and lights with your phone. Today more so than ever, children and teenagers have free access to smartphones and concern is growing about the negative consequences unlimited access to smartphones could have on younger generations who are growing up with access to technology no other generation has been exposed to at such a younTg age.

Concerns are not just from the protective and conscientious parent but from investors like Jana Partners and CalSTRS, who own roughly $2 billion in Apple Stock. Jana Partners and CalSTRS are calling for Apple to study the effects its products have on children. “We believe the long-term health of [Apple’s] youngest customers and the health of society, our economy, and the company itself are inextricably linked,” said the investors in an open letter. Investors noted that Apple makes the majority of profit through the sale of hardware and don’t think the amount of time spent on products will affect its business model.

Media Consumption

Do Apple investors have a basis for their requests? In 2015, Common Sense Media (CSM) published its startling research on media consumption by children ages 8-18. CSM’s investigation revealed that 84% of children have at least one smartphone in their home and 67% own smartphones. Having a smartphone isn’t of the utmost concern but the study showed a surprising amount of screen time by children including phones, television, and video games. Teenagers (ages 13-18) average nearly 9 hours of entertainment media use a day, excluding time at school or for homework. Similarly, children ages 8-12 average nearly 6 hours of entertainment media use per day.

Health Effects of Excessive Media Consumption

The excessive screen time by the average American teenager or pre-teen isn’t without consequence. Traditionally parents have been concerned about the health consequences of television, computer, and smartphone use because children are physically inactive during that time. The latest research suggests that mental health is the most significant health concern for the youngest generations. In their letter to Apple, Investors cited early research showing the adverse effects phone usage has had on children, such as being distracted in the classroom, higher risks of depression and suicide, and sleep deprivation. One survey in 2016 revealed that 50% of teens feel addicted to their phones.

 “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades,” Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University. Twenge notes how phone usage reduces the face-to-face interaction between children where children learn to read each other’s emotions and support each other. Time spent with other people in person is one of the best predictors of mental health. As face-to-face interactions were replaced by social media and phone apps, children have become more likely to say they’re anxious, depressed, and have thought about suicide.

Mental Health Issues on the Rise

A nationwide survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services revealed a 60% increase in the number of adolescents who reported at least one depressive episodes between 2010 and 2016. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has noted a significant rise in suicides in individuals ages 10 to 19. The research reveals that young women are suffering the most. Suicide rates among teen girls have reached a 40-year high after suicide rates remained steady or declined during the 1990s and early 2000s. Twenge, who authored the book iGen, examined how today’s super-connected teens may be less happy and less prepared for adulthood than past generations.

Twenge’s research revealed that kids who spent more than three hours a day on a smartphone or other electronic device were 34% more likely to suffer at least one suicide-related outcome—including feeling hopeless or seriously considering suicide—than kids who used devices two hours a day or less. Additionally, daily social media use in children was linked to a 13% increase in depressive symptoms when compared to less frequent social media use.

Are Smartphones to Blame?

Twenge notes that the research doesn’t prove a cause and effect relationship exists but notes that there isn’t another viable reason for the sudden spike in teenage suicide and depression. Frances Jensen, chair of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, notes that giving a young person full access to an internet connected device “may be playing with fire.” Jensen notes that social media use, especially on smartphones, affects the development of a young person’s brain, which has been associated with depression and addiction disorders.

Currently, there are no uniform recommendations for phone use, and the decision is best left to parents to decide how to manage their child’s smartphone use. Additional research is needed to strengthen the relationship between smartphone use and adolescent mental health, but the evidence that currently exists suggests that excessive smartphone use could have devastating mental health effects in children.