How today’s kids have been shaped by technology

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.