The influence of the smartphone: Part 3

Written by: Dr Stephanie Thornton | Published:
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Smartphones are changing the cultural influences on children’s development. In part three of her six-part series, Dr Stephanie Thornton considers what we know about the influence of smartphones on social and emotional development

Smartphones have transformed our teenagers’ lives in a few short years. The norm of face-to face contacts with peers, family, school, neighbourhood, where socialising existed in definite slots (not in lessons, not on a bus with strangers, not in the middle of the night) have been extended through the smartphone, to social contact anywhere, anytime, through devices that are unique to each teen, and used in privacy. No previous generation has ever been so socially connected.

Seventy per cent of our young use social networking sites through their phones every day. The average teenager sends 60 texts a day, though “high users” send far more than that (George & Odgers, 2015). They connect everywhere: in lessons, on buses, and almost all continue to socialise on their phones through the night (Vernon et al, 2018).

How does this constant connectivity affect the development of our young? Research in this area is new and suffers from many methodological difficulties. There are still more questions than answers.

We know that mobile phones can distract, damaging academic performance, and perhaps altering the development of basic cognitive functions (Wilmer et al, 2017). We know that mobile phone use can damage both physical and mental health, for some. But what impact does this constant socialising have on the fundamental processes of socio-emotional development in the young?

Pundits worry that friendships made digitally are different from those made face-to-face: more ersatz, more shallow, more transient. It’s easier to “defriend” a social media contact than to get rid of a classmate in school. Does the superficiality and dispensability of online friendships mean that the young are missing out on the essential offline experiences that traditionally shaped social skills (Turkle, 2011)? But in fact, the vast majority of online contacts teenagers make are with friends they already know and interact with offline (Reich et al, 2012).

However: this doesn’t mean that digital socialising has no affect on the development of social skills. Research suggests that smartphone use does indeed lead to less socio-emotionally skilled interactions, not as a result of how friendships are made, but rather, as a direct result of the technology itself.

Fact is, you cannot properly “read” another person’s emotional response without non-verbal emotional cues, which are omnipresent in face-to-face exchanges and largely absent from digital ones. The absence of non-verbal emotional cues makes digital exchanges less bonding than face-to-face ones, even between close friends (Sherman et al, 2013). And it seems that the habit of communicating online reduces the tendency of the young to use these non-verbal cues even in face-to-face interactions (Uhls et al, 2014).

Break the smartphone habit for even a few days (“nature camp” with all forms of digital communication banned) and levels of socio-emotional skill and empathy are significantly increased. Perhaps smartphone use is not suppressing the development of social skills so much as cueing a turn-off of their deployment: a view supported by research that shows that the mere presence of a smartphone, even turned off, reduces socio-emotional skill levels in face-to-face conversations, even between close friends (Misra et al, 2014).

Some have worried that mobile phone contact is paradoxical, creating loneliness even as it seems to create connection. Research suggests that in the main, this is not so. For the majority, the more digital social connectivity, the greater the feeling of social efficacy and the less reported loneliness (Teppers et al 2014).

But online experience tends to mirror offline experience (George & Odgers, 2015). Those who are socially successful offline are socially successful online. Those with poor social skills offline are often disadvantaged by their efforts to connect online, experiencing increased loneliness. The exception to this is that some shy and socially inept individuals may successfully use online contacts to develop better skills, becoming more socially successful offline as well as online.

And then there are questions as to how the connectivity provided by the mobile phone will impact identity formation. For example, will the anonymity that can be created through social media lead the young to experiment with identities far from their “real life” persona, with possibly damaging effect? It seems unlikely: there is usually very considerable overlap in the identities teenagers explore online and offline (George & Odgers, 2015). An exception is that social media can provide a safe place for LGBT youth to explore alternate identities that they are not ready to explore in everyday life.

What effect does the constant peer evaluation provided by social media have over identity formation? Today’s teens are developing their identities more publicly than ever before. This is stressful: peer evaluation matters more to teens than anyone else’s opinion; there is a constant tension between wanting to present “the real me” in a social media profile, and wanting to spin reality to impress (Bortree, 2005).

We worry about negative feedback and trolling through social media, but research shows that these problems may be less extensive than the popular press fear. The great majority of texts and posts are actually positive or neutral in tone (George & Odgers, 2015).

Also, teenagers pay more attention to positive feedback, even if they react more emotionally to the negative (Mills, 2016). Most cope well. It’s the individuals who are vulnerable offline who suffer most from rejection online.

Do the young worry about privacy, when they bare their souls online? Research suggests that the new generation of children view the moral boundaries as to what should be private and what public differently from how this is viewed among adults (Gelman et al, 2018).

The fact that teenagers put so much intimate information “out there” suggests that they, too, must think differently from the generations who baulked at a mere ID card with little more than name and date of birth on it. But how differently? Do they really accept different boundaries of privacy, or are they just not yet mature enough to know why privacy might matter: how their adult reputation, employability, future might be impacted by an experimental post they set in their teens? Do they even understand the very severe limits on “privacy” that social media such as Facebook apparently actually offer?

Practical implications from this research:

  • The ability of the mere physical presence of a mobile phone to reduce the level of socio-emotional skills deployed in face-to-face social interactions is worrying. Expert opinion suggests: talk to the young about the value of non-verbal cues and their absence in digital exchange. Awareness of this issue may be enough to offer some redress.
  • We need to talk to the young, urgently, about information and reputation. The young don’t have the experience to understand that youthful play online may come back to haunt them. Discussion, perhaps role-play, may be useful in this area.
  • And then: nobody reads the T&Cs of social media (or any other) companies. It could surely be the responsibility of schools to translate these lengthy, dense documents into sense that the young can understand.
  • Dr Stephanie Thornton is a chartered psychologist and former lecturer in psychology and child development. To read Dr Thornton’s previous articles in SecEd, go to The fourth article in this series will publish on June 21.


  • Presentation of Self on the Web: An ethnographic study of teenage girls’ weblogs, Bortree (2005) Education, Communication & Information, Vol 5:
  • Developing Digital Privacy: Children’s moral judgments concerning GPS devices, Gelman, Martinez, Davidson & Noles (2018) Child Development.
  • Seven fears and the science of how mobile technologies may be influencing adolescents in the digital age, George & Odgers, November 2015, Perspectives on Psychological Science:
  • Possible effects of internet use on cognitive development in adolescence, Mills, June 2016, Media and Communication:
  • The iPhone Effect: The quality of in-person social interactions in the presence of mobile devices, Misra, Cheng, Genevie & Yuan, July 2014. Environment and Behavior:
  • Friending, IMing, and hanging out face-to-face: Overlap in adolescents’ online and offline social networks, Reich, Subrahmanyam & Espinoza, 2012, Developmental Psychology.
  • The effects of text, audio, video, and in-person communication on bonding between friends, Sherman, Michikyan & Greenfield, 2013, Cyberpsychology: Journal of psychosocial research on cyberspace.
  • Loneliness and Facebook motives in adolescence: A longitudinal inquiry into directionality of effect, Teppers, Luyckx, Klimstra & Goossens, July 2014, Journal of Adolescence, Vol 37, Issue 5:
  • Alone Together, Turkle, 2011, Basic Books (New York).
  • Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues, Uhls, Michikyan, Morris, Garcia, Small, Zgourou et al, October 2014, Computers in Human Behavior:
  • Mobile phones in the bedroom: Trajectories of sleep habits and subsequent adolescent psychosocial development, Vernon, Modecki & Barber (2018) Child Development.
  • Smartphones and Cognition: A review of research exploring the links between mobile technology habits and cognitive functioning, Wilmer, Sherman & Chein (April, 2017) Frontiers in Psychology:


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