Jean M. Twenge’s Atlantic article about American teens’ technology obsession, entitled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”, examines the profound—and deleterious—impact that smartphones and social media have had on our nation’s youth.
Twenge, who has worked in psychology for 20-plus years, chronicles her interactions with various members of the post-millennial set (which she refers to as iGen). These young people, born between 1995 and 2012, typically spend every waking (and often non-waking) moment with their phones, she reports: one girl she interviewed said “she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. ‘We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.’”
Twenge’s past research into generational development has suggested that most generational trends and tendencies slowly grow with time: Millennials are extremely individualistic, in part because they inherited that trait from the Baby Boomers. “Characteristics that come to define a generation appear gradually, and along a continuum,” Twenge notes. “Beliefs and behaviors that were already rising simply continue to do so.” But the iGens, she says, are radically different:
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.
At first I presumed these might be blips, but the trends persisted, across several years and a series of national surveys. The changes weren’t just in degree, but in kind. The biggest difference between the Millennials and their predecessors was in how they viewed the world; teens today differ from the Millennials not just in their views but in how they spend their time. The experiences they have every day are radically different from those of the generation that came of age just a few years before them.
iGens’ Physical Safety Disguises Psychological Turmoil
Twenge details the persistent isolation and inertia of the iGens, who spend much of their time on their beds, on their phones, in their rooms. She suggests that, while technology usage has had a positive impact on the relative physical safety of today’s teens—less motor vehicle accidents, alcohol, smoking, sex, pregnancy, etc.—those trends are counterbalanced by massive, growing psychological dangers. Teens aren’t more “safe” because they’re inculcating habits of prudence and restraint. They’re just too busy texting to do anything physically reckless.
As a result, while iGens may be physically “safe,” their emotional and mental selves are often a mess. Today’s teens are more depressed; more prone to bullying, and being bullied; more likely to commit suicide. They often struggle with a FOMO (“fear of missing out”) so intense it affects their psychological wellbeing, the decisions they make, and the friendships they form. They struggle with body image and confidence. They struggle to foster healthy, wholesome friendships and romance.
Teens aren’t asserting their independence, even in the smallest of ways, like via getting a driver’s license. “Across a range of behaviors—drinking, dating, spending time unsupervised—18-year-olds now act more like 15-year-olds used to, and 15-year-olds more like 13-year-olds,” writes Twenge. “Childhood now stretches well into high school.”
But iGens’ extra time at home does not indicate a stronger relationship with parents and family members: quite the contrary. Many teens are constantly “zoned out.” As one interviewee tells Twenge, “I’ve seen my friends with their families—they don’t talk to them. They just say ‘Okay, okay, whatever’ while they’re on their phones. They don’t pay attention to their family.”
Internet Addiction Abroad Is a Grave Danger
A lot of technological innovation—and its resultant obsession—has crept up on us. We have seen the proximity and knowledge afforded by technology as a wholesome boon, a gift to both young and old. People can “FaceTime” or Skype with friends and family members on the other side of the world. Mothers and fathers can “telework,” thus getting more time with their kids. People both young and old can get degrees online, taking coding classes or procuring engineering degrees without having to move across the country. All these things have been good.
But what about the consequences of technology? We’re just beginning to see them, here in America, although in other countries (especially South Korea), the massive impact technological obsession has had on younger generations is shocking. In South Korea, “users started dropping dead from exhaustion after playing online games for days on end,” Martin Fackler reports for the New York Times. “… Up to 30 percent of South Koreans under 18, or about 2.4 million people, are at risk of Internet addiction.” The Independent reports:
In 2005, the BBC reported that a South Korean man died after playing an online video game for 50 hours without a break. Police said he hadn’t slept nor eaten properly.
The Guardian reported in March 2010 that a couple, also from South Korea, had allowed their three-month-old baby to starve to death while they brought up another child online. They named their virtual baby Anima, leaving their real daughter unnamed and alone most of the day while the couple frequented the local internet cafe.
The United States is not yet at these levels of addiction. But the point is, we could be. Our nation is currently in the throes of an opioid crisis so intense, President Trump has been encouraged to declare a national medical emergency. Tens of thousands of Americans are dying from overdoses every year. It’s now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50.
But technology is a similar poison: the virtual world offers relief from a troubled physical reality. It suggests that we can “be who we want to be,” that we can curate and filter ourselves into a state of bliss and popularity. But of course, when the Internet fails to deliver on its visions of utopia (as it assuredly will), we’re left more despairing and depressed than we were originally. The “high” always wears off. Twenge writes,
The advent of the smartphone and its cousin the tablet was followed quickly by hand-wringing about the deleterious effects of ‘screen time.’ But the impact of these devices has not been fully appreciated, and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans. The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.
The Internet Is More Like The Wild West Than We Think
So what exactly can we do about this? The Internet is new terrain, and continues to present unforeseen dilemmas to its users. In many ways, it’s a new “Wild West”: relatively untested, uncontrolled terrain, full of dangers (and joys). Often, we treat the Internet like a tool or medium of communication. But it’s much more than that: the Internet and its devices present uncharted territory, a space we’re only seeing through a dim light, still only partially aware of its precipices and chasms. The Internet poses many dangers—to privacy, to personality, and to community—at any given time.
The answer to these dangers doesn’t seem to lie in legislation. One could argue that we treat smart devices, and the Internet they connect us with, more like cars: as potent tools that require a degree of maturity to use. But what would that entail? The government shouldn’t require licenses for iPhones. We can’t punish parents for letting their children get on Facebook too early, or force teens into remedial Internet-free camps when they show signs of obsession.
But it is perhaps time to urge parents and teachers to stem this societal tide. Often, parents are reluctant to stand against peer pressure and all the force of a teen’s Internet addiction. Often, that’s because parents are experiencing some degree of Internet addiction themselves. The whole world is on Facebook, surfing Instagram, purchasing groceries on Amazon, buying new furniture from Wayfair. To require self-control from our children is to require it from ourselves.
It’s Time For Parents And Teachers To Take This Seriously
But something must be done—sooner rather than later. Parents and teachers must start pushing back against the technological craze that has begun transforming our education system. Children as young as kindergarten age are increasingly required to have iPads to complete homework assignments and readings. But as many have noted, these devices hurt attention spans, giving students a bevy of distractions to compete with their focus. And as David Sax noted in “Revenge of the Analog,” many children themselves say they prefer reading and writing on real physical paper.
More teachers should confiscate phones the minute their students walk into a classroom. More should find ways to include reading, writing, and note-taking, and to eliminate device usage from classrooms and homework requirements. This isn’t about being Spartan and “mean.” Old-fashioned, analog tools such as paper and pens have proven cerebral, mental benefits. They foster focus, memorization, and imagination. Even doodling in class can be beneficial for memory and retention.
In the home, parents should consider confiscating phones at the dinner and breakfast table (Sherry Turkle, in her book “Reclaiming Conversation,” suggests that setting aside technology-free spaces is a good way to foster strong relationships and ward off addiction). Family vacations (or even just weekends, depending on the family) should have designated technology times, but otherwise enforce strict outdoors and family time and activities: for playing soccer or football or baseball, going on bike rides, reading books, hiking and walking, playing card and board games, watching movies together as a family, et cetera.
Many of the young people Twenge talks to in her piece were first introduced to smartphones before high school—some as young as 11. But there’s no reason for children to have smartphones and devices this young. The primary use for a mobile phone, at least traditionally, is for safety and communication when young adults are away—whether at a sports tournament or slumber party, school function or summer camp. Parents often feel pressure to provide pre-teens with the same snazzy devices all their friends are using, but there’s no reason a 12-year-old need anything but a flip phone. (I’d argue they don’t even need that.)
A father recently noted that much of his own technology usage as a high schooler was constantly monitored because it was fixed in place: he called his girlfriend over a landline, and had to talk to her in the kitchen, amid all the busyness and watchful eyes that entailed. Similarly, many millennials who used the Internet did so via a family computer—and thus were monitored and watched accordingly. There’s an argument to be made for bringing back the landline phones and desktop computers that many Americans have abandoned, merely because they provide important training ground for the next generation’s tech users.
This Isn’t About Cruelty. Ultimately, It’s About Happiness
But of course, many of the struggles that Twenge highlights in her article are not just about what teens are doing, and how to limit those things. It’s also about what iGen members aren’t doing: communicating truthfully and wholesomely in real time, cultivating mentoring relationships with older, wiser adults (such as their parents), and exercising their intellect and imagination beyond the world of the virtual.
To cultivate such things means parents and teachers must do more than just take devices away. They must replace the devices—and everything those devices represent—with something new, more beautiful, more fulfilling than anything young adults have been able to find online. That will differ from child to child, and from family to family. It will require creativity and time, and a whole lot of attention. But it’s possible.
And—I think it’s important to remember—it will ultimately lead to childrens’ happiness. It’s easy to treat Internet-curbing practices in the home like some evil, malevolent prudishness that only desires to make kids miserable. But note Twenge’s research on the topic:
All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness. Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who devote less time to social media. Admittedly, 10 hours a week is a lot. But those who spend six to nine hours a week on social media are still 47 percent more likely to say they are unhappy than those who use social media even less. The opposite is true of in-person interactions. Those who spend an above-average amount of time with their friends in person are 20 percent less likely to say they’re unhappy than those who hang out for a below-average amount of time.
Ultimately, Aristotle believed that virtue (which he saw as a mean between excess and defect) results in eudaimonia: happiness. We are happiest when we are fulfilling our souls’ deepest desires as social animals, thriving in community and cultivating virtue together. Young adults may not realize it yet, but there just isn’t an app for that.