Book Review

How today’s kids have been shaped by technology

Jean Twenge on the iGen

May 31, 2019

Even at the relatively small college where I work, the diversity of our student body is impressive. If you come to our cafeteria at lunch, you will find students from almost all 50 states, more than a dozen foreign countries, and a variety of racial, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds. Amid so much diversity, there is one nearly universal commonality—smartphones. Seemingly every college student has one.

Almost as ubiquitous, though not nearly as obvious, are a host of spiritual, emotional, and social maladies that plague today’s teenagers and young adults. Drawing a causal relationship between these two realities is the main argument of Jean Twenge’s book, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood and What That Means for the Rest of Us.

The effects of the smartphone

Twenge noticed dramatic changes in psychological and sociological trends in teenagers and young adults beginning in 2011. That also happens to be the same year that the number of people in America who own a smartphone first outnumbered those who do not. Smartphone ownership has continued to rise. Each chapter of iGen focuses on a different set of effects that Twenge argues are a result of the proliferation of smartphones.

Teenagers today are more likely to be lonely, to feel left out, to be overwhelmed with anxiety, and to contemplate suicide than in previous generations. Twenge argues that smartphones have given iGen'ers constant access to social media. Social media presents an incomplete picture of what real life is like because only the best, happiest, and most picturesque moments are posted. As one scrolls through their Instagram feed, it is easy to assume that one’s life isn’t as exciting as everyone else’s. FOMO (fear of missing out) makes contentment in one’s own life a struggle. “Likes,” retweets, and comments on social media posts are received as quantifiable witnesses to one’s popularity, wit, attractiveness, and, either explicitly or implicitly, one’s worth. All these sources of anxiety and depression are continuously brought and directly to the teen by the smartphone in their pocket.

It's not all bad news for iGen, though. For example, statistics on the teen pregnancy rate, the number of car accidents involving teens, and the number of teens who report binge drinking and getting into fistfights have all trended downward. As the subtitle of the book states, iGen'ers are less rebellious than previous generations, at least in the ways earlier generations of teens were stereotypically rebellious. They're more cautious and therefore safer than previous generations of teens. Even this, though, is but a silver lining around a dark cloud, according to Twenge. She argues that iGen is less rebellious and safer because their social lives are conducted online more than in person. The lack of real, personal interactions means iGen’ers are less likely to engage in dangerous behavior, but they’re also less likely to engage different ideas. Our online worlds can be curated in a way that the real world cannot. As a result, iGen'ers have demanded trigger warnings and safe spaces to cope. This fragility is one of the many ways that iGen'ers are, as the subtitle of the book claims, "completely unprepared for adulthood."

As one who works with teenagers and young adults, many of Twenge’s descriptions of iGen resonate with my observations of the students on our campus. The struggle to get students off of their phones is persistent. The phones are ever-present distractions from real life and real people. Even when students aren’t on their phones, their conversations revolve around things they’ve seen on social media. Similarly, the number of students who share their struggles with anxiety, depression, and similar emotional problems is quite shocking. Anecdotally, it would be easy to accept that the trends Twenge identifies in the survey data are accurate representations of a growing mental health crisis among teens and young adults.

In many cases, the historical data Twenge is working from only goes back to the early 90s. In some areas Twenge is not comparing iGen to previous generations as much as she is comparing them to a single previous generation. Without more data, it is impossible to know if current trends are a departure from an established norm or not. Of the four surveys that she used as her primary source for data, two were conducted up to 2015 and two up to 2016. That means that Twenge’s conclusions are based on changes that occurred over just a four to five year window and were drawn almost in real-time. The reader needs to keep this aspect of the data in mind.

The all-pervasive presence of smartphones is undeniable, and some of the major issues she identifies seem highly plausible—specifically the increase in social isolation, anxiety, and depression that makeup chapters three and four, the strongest in the book. The style of the writing—short chapters laced with anecdotes and sprinkled with graphs—makes it a quick and accessible read for laypersons. This is a helpful book to spark discussions about the effects of smartphone usage. It is especially useful to those working with teenagers and young adults. I hope Twenge or others will continue to monitor and survey data to determine if the trends she identifies continue. Perhaps this book will spur others on to that work. Smartphones are changing us. For iGen’s sake and for those that come after, let us pray that the effects are not as devastating as they now seem.

Chris Smith

Chris H. Smith Jr. is the assistant director of Student Life at Boyce College where he has adjunct taught systematic theology. He is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Wheaton College, having completed an M.Div. in Great Commission Studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a B.S. in … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24