The year 2012 was the moment our kids lost their childhood.

Recent research out of the United States reveals a sharp decrease in wellbeing among adolescents from 2012 onwards — the year when smartphone ownership became commonplace among teens.

Using survey data from 1.1 million young people, the researchers found that adolescents who spent more time on social media, texting, gaming and the internet were less happy, had lower self-esteem and lower satisfaction with their lives.

But what about the wellbeing of Australian adolescents? As someone who works with thousands of young Australians each year to prevent mental ill-health, I repeatedly get asked if rates of mental illness in young Australians are increasing and if so, what has caused it.

Well, yes, rates of youth mental ill-health do appear to be on the rise here.

The recent ‘report card’ by the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY) revealed an increase in the number of young Australians experiencing “high or very high” psychological distress between 2011 and 2015, while the most recent annual Mission Australia Youth Survey found for the first time that mental health was now the #1 concern of young people.

So, should we ban the smartphone? Are there any other factors contributing to this rise?

Having spent years conducting research and working in the area of preventing mental health problems in young people, I have made some observations that may help explain this, and more importantly, what to do about it.

Two major changes in the last 10 to 15 years have significantly altered the psychological environment in which kids grow up: technology and parenting practices.

Smartphones, gaming over Wi-Fi and social media platforms have combined to alter the way young people spend their time. These technology-based pursuits have taken them away from non-screen activities that are associated with greater wellbeing.

The US study found that adolescents who spent more time on non-screen activities such as face-to-face social interactions and exercise were likely to be happier.

The link between activity levels and mood is clear. Real-world social activity and exercise are a part of maintaining good mental health, while being withdrawn from social activity and exercise can be both a symptom and a cause of problems such as depression.

Social media has also allowed kids to compare themselves to an unlimited number of peers and idols who present unrealistic, highly-selective images of their appearance and lifestyles. The end result for teens? Feeling not good enough.

– Tom Nehmy

Read more: Smart Phones Have Robbed Kids of Their Childhood

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