Circling around the interwebs recently has been an article on the Atlantic by Jean Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” If you have not yet read the piece, then I encourage you to do so. It is a powerful and interesting look at the impact of social media on the post-millennial generation (that the author terms iGen). If you know me, or have been a reader of my blog, then you know that I do not advocate scare tactics and believe that these tools are both transformative in school and outside of them. I like this piece because it is a well thought out look at the shifting landscape of modern adolescents.
Twenge is not a luddite or an author nostaligic for the days of her youth. The piece is careful to highlight (repeatedly) that correlation is not necessarily causation and that generational differences are just that – differences. She is also careful not demonize smart phones or social media, rather the author focuses on the correlation between the prevalence of Smartphones and the rise of depression amongst teens. Twenge highlights several disturbing and significant trends that we see in our communities that correlate with the smartphone and social media, especially among teens that spend less time socializing peer to peer and more time socializing online.
The more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression. Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent, while those who play sports, go to religious services, or even do homework more than the average teen cut their risk significantly.
What struck me throughout this article is that iGen is a group of adolescents that are less inclined to engage, unsupervised, with their peers than previous generations. They are less likely to be independent through part-time jobs, unsupervised activities, and drivers licenses. This is not a trait that we can blame on “this generation,” but is more often seen as a result of parenting trends. danah boyd (sic) highlights throughout her book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, that adolescents today are more governed and controlled by their parents and society than any generation prior. This is likely connected to the fact that while it has never been safer to be a child in the world, our perceptions of danger have never been higher. As such, children are sheltered to an unprecedented degree. While many of us Gen X’ers can remember being dropped off at the mall to “hang out” with friends for a few hours or “going out” with friends on a Saturday night, today’s tweens and teens are not afforded such freedoms. It is so uncommon, in fact, that a “new age” parenting technique deemed “Free Range Parenting” has arisen. The quotes are not accidental, the child rearing of our youths is now deemed “radical.”
Twenge does an excellent job highlighting that the struggles of today’s adolescents are more complex than simple “screen time.” The issue that most struck me was the role that social media plays in amplifying traditional adolescent anxieties, especially of “being left out.” All of us remember being the one “not invited” to a party or event. It was hurtful on Monday morning to find out that your friends were all having fun and you were at home. With today’s social media, however, “left out” teens are bombarded with images and videos of the events as they are happening. This is in keeping with technology as an “amplifier.”
There were a few elements in Twenge’s article that I felt merited further exploration or may be less conclusive than the author presents. Many of the trends she highlighted were already on the rise (or decline) by the time that smartphones came on the scene; for example teenagers dating or getting drivers licenses were decreasing for years. Additionally, measuring things such as mental illness, depression, and suicidal ideation have become more prevalent in the modern era with the professionalization of mental health services and the continual de-stigmatization of certain mental illnesses (such as depression). As such, these may have simply been grossly under-reported in the past. Additionally, while suicide remains stigmatic mode of death, more people are talking about and acknowledging when individuals (especially teenagers) take their own lives. Less often are suicides labeled “accidents.”
An article posted on JSTOR, “Yes, Smartphones Are Destroying a Generation But Not of Kids,” takes greater issue with Twenge’s research and data. It also highlights the fact that it is parents’ social media use, rather than kids’s, that is more alarming.
…when parents are distracted—as today’s parents are, perpetually, by our online lives—it’s the encouragement that suffers, more than the control. The result? Kids who stay inside their semi-gilded cages, because they don’t get the support they need to spread their wings.
This is not to say that I am dismissing Twenge’s conclusions. The piece is quite thoughtful and presents some compelling evidence that adults (parents and educators) should be more thoughtful about the time their children spend online and more open to more “analog” and “independent” activities for children.
Read the article and let me know your thoughts in the comments.