Whether you’re a parent, a teacher, an employer, or just an observer of the human condition, there is a good chance you’re concerned about the youth of today. They are glued to their phones, they don’t go outside, they can’t/won’t get jobs, they seem incapable of genuine, face-to-face communication. What are we going to do with them? Take away their devices? Kick them out of the house? Throw up our hands and give up?
Dr. Jean M. Twenge’s iGen thoroughly and academically explores these conditions. She doesn’t have or claim to have all of the answers. But she makes some keen, scientifically-supported observations, and she has plenty of thoughts and ideas. Informative and well-written, I breezed through iGen. My anxieties are not all assuaged, but I do have hope.
Who is “iGen”? Roughly, it’s the post-Millennial generation, kids and young adults born between 1995 and 2012. Twenge is careful to point out that these strict birth year cutoffs are not set in stone, and there are some carryovers between generations. Which only makes sense. Even within the iGen birth year range, especially given how rapidly technology is changing, a kid born in 1995 essentially grows up in a completely different world than a kid born in 2012. These are rough approximations and thoughtful generalizations.
The subtitle sheds further light on the scope of Twenge’s observations: “Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood*” With the asterisked sub-subtitle “and What That Means for the Rest of Us.” I like this last clarifier. It’s almost a right of passage for the older generation to look at the young, shake their heads in disgust, and mutter some version of “kids these days.” Twenge is careful to couch her observations, not as bad or good, but as just the way it is. That’s not to say things can’t change or improve, but merely to recognize that judging a whole generation as bad or hopeless is not helpful, and blaming them for the way they are is wrong and carries no value.
What does “iGen” mean? I’m paraphrasing, but one of the defining characteristics of iGen is that they are the first generation born where the internet has always been part of their lives. Not only that, but they are the first generation to go through their teenage and young adult lives where handheld internet-capable devices, like the iPhone, are a fixture of that experience. Think that’s no big deal? Think again.
In a nutshell, in addition to her subtitle, Twenge’s chapter headings provide a road map to her primary observations. iGen is in no hurry to grow up. 18 year olds act like 14 year olds did just a decade or so ago. Again, Twenge doesn’t identify this as good or bad, and you can’t objectively label all of the corresponding changes in activity as positive or negative. But the specifics are kind of a mixed bag. On the plus side, they are safer, less violent, slower to have sex or engage in underage drinking. But they are also not getting jobs, not learning how to drive, hesitating or refusing to go to college, embark on careers, or get married.
What are they doing instead? Playing videogames, watching YouTube, and otherwise (in my opinion) wasting time online. Instagram, Snapchat, to a lesser degree Twitter and Facebook. I acknowledge that there is some hypocrisy here. For me. I am on the internet right now. But they’re spending mind-blowing quantities of time. According to Twenge, iGen high school seniors spent an average of 2 1/4 hours a day texting on their cell phones, about 2 hours a day on the Internet, 1 1/2 hours a day on electronic gaming, and about a half hour on video chat. See iGen at p. 51. That’s 5 hours a day with “new media” and doesn’t even account for the additional 2 hours a day they spend watching TV. And this is just during their leisure time. According to Twenge, “[c]onsidering that teens spend about seventeen hours a day in school, sleeping, and on school activities,” every remaining second of their time is spent with this media. She does allow that there could be some multi-tasking going on, which to me is almost more disturbing. If teens are texting while watching The Kardashians, fine. But if they’re watching YouTube (or worse) instead of paying attention in class or sleeping, then that’s a problem.
What else? iGeners aren’t getting together in person. As a result, they feel lonely and depressed and are not developing critical social skills necessary to succeed or have enjoyable, meaningful, and fulfilling “irl” relationships.
They don’t read. As Mark Twain is attributed as saying: “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” Or something like that. iGens can technically read, but the instant gratification of short internet vids and smartphone apps have depleted their attention spans. Anything that takes longer than 2 or 3 minutes without an entertaining video or online quiz or pair of boobs is too much for them apparently. Sad.
Sadder still is the corresponding “mental health crisis” associated with all this time online. iGens are exponentially more prone to depression, anxiety, and suicide. More than any other generation, and there is strong evidence that this is directly related to all this internet exposure. In an eye-opening chart (Figure 3.5 on p. 78), Twenge outlines the relative risk of being unhappy for certain activities. Sports, exercise, religious services, print media, in-person social interaction, and even work and homework all have a negative risk. In other words, these activities take away from unhappiness or make kids happy. But internet, social networking websites, texting, computer games, and video chat all increase the risk of unhappiness. Guess which group of activities iGens engage in most frequently, often in complete exclusion of the other category of activities. I bet you guessed it.
With internet interplay, iGens sleep less, which only exacerbates depression and other problems. On average, according to Twenge, a teenager needs 9 hours of sleep. Most iGens get 7 or fewer, some far fewer.
Statistically, iGens are “safer,” but it’s because they’re never leaving the house. They are irreligious (too many rules; they don’t need God, they have high-speed internet). They are exceptionally tolerant, of all ideologies. Pro-acceptance. No matter what your views. Skew Libertarian politically. Don’t want government telling anyone what to do, which leaves them pro-choice, but also pro-gun. A weird future political climate.
iGens can’t handle life’s stresses. Twenge cites to Twenty One Pilots’ “Stressed Out” as a sort of anthem to iGen, the link between growing up slowly and mental health issues. The stresses they experience at the prospect of being told “wake up, you need to make money.” Never thought of that song that way. Interesting. Lyrics here. Video link here, for any iGens in the readership.
iGens are fragile. They need “safe spaces.” They literally cannot handle or tolerate viewpoints that make them uncomfortable. College is a strange landscape with all iGen students.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. They are more realistic and hard-working than the special snowflake Millennials. Less egotistical. Less lazy. Less certain that they deserve to have everything handed to them on a silver platter just because they exist (I mock Millennials somewhat tongue-in-cheek. By most standards, I am a very late Gen X-er, but late enough that many Millennial traits apply to me. My parents literally told me that I was special, and could grow up to be literally anything I wanted. Hence the English major, poetry affinity, and diehard head in the clouds romanticism. But I do have a real job. I pay taxes, and my mortgage. I even vote occasionally).
Is this a big deal? Are we worrying about nothing? Doesn’t every generation worry that newfangled technologies are going to corrupt and destroy the younger generation? This is what Twenge has to say:
Many parents wonder if we really need to worry about this stuff. Some argue that the flurry of concern over smartphones resembles the panic over previous media, such as radio, music albums, TV, or even novels. That might be true, but it’s not particularly relevant. Social media and electronic device use is linked to higher rates of loneliness, unhappiness, depression, and suicide risk, in both correlational and experimental data. Novels and music are not. TV watching is linked to depression, and sure enough, more Boomers (the first TV generation) were depressed than previous generations that had grown up without TV. Just because an argument has been made before doesn’t mean it’s wrong; the “panic” over TV turned out to be somewhat justified. Thus an argument about whether a “panic” about media has happened before seems trivial–our kids need help now.
IGen– Twenge at 292 (emphasis added). In short, this is not just the latest iteration of a generational lament. The internet and smartphones and social media are different. And dangerous. If you have iGen kids and you’re not worried about online pornography, sexting, or cyberbullying, you’re not paying attention and/or you’re a naive idiot.
So what can we do? Twenge does offer some helpful advice. First and foremost, we need to put down our phones. All of us. There is a whole big bright beautiful world full of beautiful people out there. The cat videos can wait. With enough time in the real world, we may realize we don’t need those silly videos at all. That being said, we don’t have to force our teens to quit cold turkey. But limit their time. Monitor what they’re doing. Help them avoid the worst and most dangerous habits. Talk to your kids about nudes and porn. Encourage in-person time, which is proven to be healthy, and decrease online interactions. In fact, embrace more of all the positives from the chart referenced above (exercise, sports, reading, work), and less of the other crap (social media, texting, videogames).
iGen needs our help and support just like we needed the help and support of the generations before us. Children are the future, whether we like it or not. Rather than criticizing them, we need to meet them where they are, and work through this fast-paced, fascinating new world together. So put down those phones (after reading and liking and sharing and tweeting this blog post, of course. Oh, the hypocrisy!!!!!!!!!!!).