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Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?

A common sight in the 21st Century


… how times have changed

As children, we roamed through the woods with family and friends, and our ties to technology were rare and infrequent. Since my mother forbade us from having a television until we were in high school, a small radio that was decades old was my only electronic tie to the world.

That meant that I played ball, played the piano, romped through the woods, and enjoyed life in a very different way from those in the 21st Century.

As Dr. Jean M. Twenge wrote a few years ago, I would be considered to be an anachronism today. In an essay in The Atlantic, the Gen. X psychologist lamented the fact that the contemporary teenagers are so lonely today despite having constant interaction with their “friends.”

She traces it to the smartphone. Are we blaming the right culprit?

The loneliness

Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University who has been studying “generational differences” for a quarter of a century. The professor has written seven books and more than 180 scientific articles about this topic. She is alarmed by the data that she has seen over the past ten years that reflect the current generation that she calls “iGen,”

Social-networking sites like Facebook promise to connect us to friends. But the portrait of iGen teens emerging from the data is one of a lonely, dislocated generation. Teens who visit social-networking sites every day but see their friends in person less frequently are the most likely to agree with the statements “A lot of times I feel lonely,” “I often feel left out of things,” and “I often wish I had more good friends.” Teens’ feelings of loneliness spiked in 2013 and have remained high since.

Jean M. Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”

The Atlantic, September 2017.

Is the reliance on smartphones really destroying a generation? She makes a convincing argument about it.

Differences among generations

Yes, we Baby Boomers had few electronic choices when we were maturing in the 1950s and even the 60s. The landline was present, but we were using clunky typewriters that were not even electric to churn out term papers and other materials.

No internet? The current generation just chuckles at such a thought.

Yet, this has brought about significant changes in young people,

I’ve been researching generational differences for 25 years, starting when I was a 22-year-old doctoral student in psychology. Typically, the characteristics that come to define a generation appear gradually, and along a continuum. Beliefs and behaviors that were already rising simply continue to do so. Millennials, for instance, are a highly individualistic generation, but individualism had been increasing since the Baby Boomers turned on, tuned in, and dropped out. I had grown accustomed to line graphs of trends that looked like modest hills and valleys. Then I began studying Athena’s generation.

Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs, and many of the distinctive characteristics of the Millennial generation began to disappear. In all my analyses of generational data—some reaching back to the 1930s—I had never seen anything like it.

Jean M. Twenge, The Atlantic, September 2017

This sounds downright depressing.

Is there any hope?

Dr. Twenge provides this analysis from her own life as a mother, not just a distinguished psychologist,

I realize that restricting technology might be an unrealistic demand to impose on a generation of kids so accustomed to being wired at all times. My three daughters were born in 2006, 2009, and 2012. They’re not yet old enough to display the traits of iGen teens, but I have already witnessed firsthand just how ingrained new media are in their young lives. I’ve observed my toddler, barely old enough to walk, confidently swiping her way through an iPad. I’ve experienced my 6-year-old asking for her own cellphone. I’ve overheard my 9-year-old discussing the latest app to sweep the fourth grade. Prying the phone out of our kids’ hands will be difficult, even more so than the quixotic efforts of my parents’ generation to get their kids to turn off MTV and get some fresh air.

But more seems to be at stake in urging teens to use their phone responsibly, and there are benefits to be gained even if all we instill in our children is the importance of moderation. Significant effects on both mental health and sleep time appear after two or more hours a day on electronic devices. The average teen spends about two and a half hours a day on electronic devices. Some mild boundary-setting could keep kids from falling into harmful habits.

Jean M. Twenge, The Atlantic, September 2017

Significant ramifications

With children who are now teenagers themselves, Dr. Twenge is very concerned,

Depression and suicide have many causes; too much technology is clearly not the only one. And the teen suicide rate was even higher in the 1990s, long before smartphones existed. Then again, about four times as many Americans now take antidepressants, which are often effective in treating severe depression, the type most strongly linked to suicide.

What’s the connection between smartphones and the apparent psychological distress this generation is experiencing? For all their power to link kids day and night, social media also exacerbate the age-old teen concern about being left out. Today’s teens may go to fewer parties and spend less time together in person, but when they do congregate, they document their hangouts relentlessly—on Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook. Those not invited to come along are keenly aware of it. Accordingly, the number of teens who feel left out has reached all-time highs across age groups. Like the increase in loneliness, the upswing in feeling left out has been swift and significant.

This trend has been especially steep among girls. Forty-eight percent more girls said they often felt left out in 2015 than in 2010, compared with 27 percent more boys. Girls use social media more often, giving them additional opportunities to feel excluded and lonely when they see their friends or classmates getting together without them. Social media levy a psychic tax on the teen doing the posting as well, as she anxiously awaits the affirmation of comments and likes. When Athena posts pictures to Instagram, she told me, “I’m nervous about what people think and are going to say. It sometimes bugs me when I don’t get a certain amount of likes on a picture.”

Jean M. Twenge, The Atlantic, September 2017

Dr. Jean M. Twenge

The problem of the smartphone and social media are often beyond the pale for parents and grandparents who share concerns about this. However, when I think about what our parents thought of us as Baby Boomers back in the 1960s and 70s, I realize that the world is likely to continue, albeit with some serious problems.

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