Jean M. Twenge’s article in The Atlantic published yesterday, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” is a thought-provoking, and, I’m sorry to say, accurate look at what the author calls “iGen,” the post-Millennial generation. Defined as those born between 1995 and 2012, they have grown up with smartphones and social media, and they are markedly different from the generations before them as a result. I often read articles such as this one with the expectation that I will disagree with many of the author’s claims, and that my first-hand experience with adolescents will not support their theses, but in this case Twenge is consistently on target. Her research has unveiled some of the benefits of being a member of iGen (greater physical safety, less risk taking), but it is the drawbacks of all of that iPhone time that she focusses on. Depression and social-media-via-smartphone saturation seem to go hand in hand, as her research has clearly demonstrated. Whether or not the smartphone has “ruined” this generation is obviously not something we’ll be able to know for sixty years or so, but there are an awful lot of depressed adolescents walking around right now.
If you are not raising teens or working in secondary ed, you might be stunned to hear Twenge’s data about declining interest among teens in getting a driver’s license. But it’s true! Many suburban teens these days are showing no urgency to get a license. They socialize via their phones from home, or their parents drive them where they need to go. Twenge doesn’t mention Uber and other ride-sharing services. Among the ominous news in this article, the author may have missed an opportunity to talk about the environmental benefits that come from a generation that is ambivalent about driving. Ride-sharing and public transportation may decrease the number of cars on the road in the coming decades as iGen shifts fully into adulthood.
The iPhone and social media addiction that Twenge describes is also crowding out other risky behaviors, as other researchers have begun to suspect. Drug, tobacco, and alcohol use are all less prevalent among iGen. Given the long-lasting damage that substance problems inflict, often following teens through college into adulthood, until they finally receive treatment, I have to wonder if the smartphone and social media addiction is going to turn out to be less of a problem. Perhaps what technology hath wrought, technology can undo, in the form of new apps that limit screen time and social media use. There’s clearly an opportunity for parenting to make a difference here, too. Already, a small number of parents are taking the tough steps and confiscating their kids’ devices at bed time. (Twenge seems shocked to learn that adolescents all take their phones to bed with them every night. This elicits an eye roll from boarding school folks like me.) Whereas experimentation with substances often occurs away from home where parents aren’t present, this generation of homebodies can be helped by adults telling them, “No more phone time for you today. Go outside and play!”
Twenge also reports less sexual activity occurring among iGen. However, it seems to me that a significant amount of the shaming, bullying, and harassing that is causing depression among those addicted to their devices is sexual in nature (or proto-sexual, as it relates to body shaming, or not dressing like the cool kids, etc.). This is one of the saddest elements of Twenge’s research. This generation is getting extra doses of the worst parts of relationships/romance/sexuality — that is, the moments of shame, embarrassment, awkwardness, regret — without the good parts. Admittedly, teen pregnancy rates are down among iGen, and that’s heartening news, but not if everyone is walking around depressed.
What should adults be doing to respond to this data? I usually prefer carrots to sticks, and catching flies with honey. (Sorry about the mixed metaphors.) Yes, we can confiscate devices and shut off the wifi and so forth, but we need to put an emphasis on drawing youngsters into healthy physical activities, such as athletics, orienteering, biking, and the arts. And we need to create guidelines at dances and other IRL social gatherings that encourage kids to put the phones away and live in the moment, instead of recording it all for Instagram or Snapchat. One can’t help feeling that Twenge is recommending more square dances and roller-rink parties; i.e., a return to my Gen-X elementary school experience.
As is often the case when I read pieces such as this one, I feel privileged to work at a boarding school. Our 24/7 access to students creates an opening to shape their experiences in ways that might help increase mindful living-in-the-present and decrease nose-in-phone time. But even for us, it is a tough challenge. My colleagues and I will need to strategize as the school year begins in (alas) a few short weeks.