In a must-read excerpt from her upcoming book published in September’s The Atlantic, Jean M. Twenge has a new name for the rising generation of young Americans:
I call them iGen. Born between 1995 and 2012, members of this generation are growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet. The Millennials grew up with the web as well, but it wasn’t ever-present in their lives, at hand at all times, day and night. iGen’s oldest members were early adolescents when the iPhone was introduced, in 2007, and high-school students when the iPad entered the scene, in 2010. A 2017 survey of more than 5,000 American teens found that three out of four owned an iPhone.
Twenge says the impact of smartphones on our daily lives “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.
As with all generational changes, Twenge points out the good and the bad:
More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party, today’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been. They’re markedly less likely to get into a car accident and, having less of a taste for alcohol than their predecessors, are less susceptible to drinking’s attendant ills.
Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.
There is no doubt that iGens are different than the Millennials, Gen Xers, and Boomers of generations past. The desire for independence is less powerful for today’s teenagers, Twenge says, “who are less likely to leave the house without their parents. The shift is stunning: 12th-graders in 2015 were going out less often than eighth-graders did as recently as 2009.” Teens today are less likely to date, which, not surprisingly, leads to a decline in sexual activity and, importantly, historically low teen birth rates. They are more likely to delay obtaining a driver’s license and, with less need to put gas in the tank, less likely to work for pay. Drinking and smoking are down. In short, it’s taking kids longer these days to grow up:
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. Childhood now stretches well into high school.
Twenge says that smartphones make this “homebody arrangement” attractive to teens, who can spend time with their friends without leaving home — “on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed.” Citing a recent national survey matching teens’ activities with their reported happiness, Twenge says the results are clear:
Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy.
There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness…
If you were going to give advice for a happy adolescence based on this survey, it would be straightforward: Put down the phone, turn off the laptop, and do something—anything—that does not involve a screen.
Teen depression is up (and so are teen suicides). And sleep is way down, causing symptoms of sleep deprivation that include irritability, anxiety, depression, impaired cognition and judgement, weight gain, and high blood pressure. With three young children of her own, Twenge is concerned that for her and other parents, prying the phone out of their hands is easier said than done:
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.
Read the rest of this essential-for-parents article here.