Have smartphones destroyed a generation?

Jean M. Twenge, the author of the article Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?, has been researching generation differences for 25 years of her career. In this article she describes the generation she calls iGens – those who were born between 1995 and 2012. The oldest ones were early adolescents when iPhone was introduced. In fact, iGens never knew a life without a smartphone.

Usually the characteristics of a certain generation appear gradually and stay for a long time. The generation before iGens is called Millennials, and it was individualistic but stable. However, in 2012 Jean M. Twenge noticed abrupt shifts in graphics that demonstrated new persisting trends in generation’s behavior. The new generation seemed to be very different from its predecessors not in just their views but also in how they spend their time. These dramatic shifts of behavior appeared after the Great Recession, but another important factor that affected the teenagers of that time was that over 50% of Americans got smartphones. So this generation was shaped by the smartphone and the social media, and the impact of these factors goes far beyond the usual concerns. They affect every aspect of all the modern teens’ life, from their social interactions to mental health.

To show what she means, the author describes her conversation with Athena, a 13-year-old teenager from Houston, Texas. The girl tells Jean how she spends her time and how she communicates with friends. Describing her own generation, Athena says that they ‘like phones than they like actual people’. They just didn’t have a chance to know life without smart gadgets, and it affected them a lot.

Generation studies show how modern teenagers live their lives now. The changes might be positive or negative, but most could be called both. For example, nowadays teens stay home a lot, so they are safer. However, psychologically they are more vulnerable than Millennials. Moreover, the rate of teenage depression and suicide increased during the last years.

Jean M. Twenge mentions, that no single factor ever defines the whole generation as circumstances, parenting and schooling styles are very changeable. On the other hand, smartphones and social media had a great impact on the iGens that cannot be denied. Their effect is rather profound and actually causes teenagers to feel unhappy.

Boomers – the generation of 1970s – were independent and self-confident, they tended to drink, smoke and have sex in early age, and that is how they expressed themselves. Generation X also sought independence and tried to get as much freedom as they could. For example, they tried to get their driving licenses on the day they turned 16 because driving was a symbol of this freedom. But modern teens are less interested in independence. A significant part of them seldom leaves house without the parents. In fact, 8th graders in 2009 seemed to go out more than 12th graders in 2015. They are less likely to date, and this decline in dating tracks with a decline in sexual activity that dropped by almost 40% since 1991. Generally, iGens have their first sex approximately one year later than, for example, Gen Xers. In 2016, the teen birth rate hit all-time low, being 67% down compared with 1991.

Driving also does not attract teens as much as in earlier years. iGens are usually driven by parents until they insist on their children getting a driving license. Unlike kids from previous generations, iGens almost don’t work or manage their own money. In 2010, the rate of working high-school seniors dropped by about 20% since 1970, and for 8th graders it was cut in half.

iGens seem to delay their adolescence and put off the responsibilities of adulthood. It is influenced by both economical and parenting factors. The information economy changed the demands that teenagers face. Moreover, thanks to smartphones, teens now can socialize staying right in their bedrooms. Although iGens spend a lot of their time at home, they do not study more. According to the researches, students in 2010 studied even less than their predecessors in early 1990s. As modern teens work and study less, they have more leisure time, and mostly they spend it on their phones.

In spite of staying home, teenagers are less close with their parents nowadays. They seem to have certain difficulties with social interactions in general. iGens spend more time on the phone than with actual people, and the fact that the number of teens getting together with their friends dropped almost by half between 2000 and 2015 proves it. Real meetings have been replaced with virtual connections made through apps and the Web.

According to The Monitoring the Future survey funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, teens who prefer to spend their time in front of the screen are more likely to be unhappy, and, conversely, those who choose ‘real’ activities tend to be happier. This link is strong and has no exceptions: the survey demonstrates, that screen activities cause the feeling of unhappiness among teenagers.

iGen is a lonely, dislocated generation, and one of the reasons of it are social networking sites. Generally, the less time teenagers spend contacting with others in-person, the more they suffer from loneliness. Although more or less social teens tend to be more or less social in both venue, the overall trend shows that those who prefer virtual interactions are more likely to report the symptoms of depression. Teenagers, who spend three or more hours per day on electronic devices are 35% more suicidal. It is important to notice, that the rate of homicide has gradually declined through the past years, but the rate of suicide has increased. In 2011, the number of suicides got higher than the number of homicides.

Due to constant usage of social networking sites, teenagers are more likely to feel left out. This trend is spread widely among girls although boys also have such concerns. When teenagers see their friends posting about the meetings they were not invited to, they feel excluded. Moreover, teens often complain about their dependence on the reaction of others expressed via likes and comments. Besides the depressive symptoms common among both sex teenagers, girls are closing the gap in suicide rate that was usually higher for boys. Also, girls are more likely to suffer from cyberbullying, and social media is often used for it.

Another important problem concerning smartphones is teenage sleep deprivation. iGens commonly place their phones beside their head while sleeping. The smartphone is the last thing they see before falling asleep and the first after waking up, and it looks as teenagers are seriously obsessed with their devices. While discussing this issue, they often use addiction language. Talking about sleeping problems, the number of teens sleeping for less than seven hours per night increased by a half since 1991. There is a strong link between social media and sleep deprivation, which causes problems with thinking and reasoning as well as physical and mental diseases.

To sum up, parents are better limit the time their children spend in front of the screen. The smartphone and social media obsession might have a severe impact on teens’ future adult life, affecting their mental health and social skills. However, the author mentions that restricting technology is an unrealistic demand in the modern world, giving her personal experience of raising young kids as an example. But still, mild boundary-setting can prevent teenagers from falling into harmful habits.

In the last passage of the article Jean M. Twenge describes her talk with Athena, in which the girl complains that it is hard to make her fellows actually communicate in person. They prefer to look into their phones, ignoring the conversation, and it is hurtful.

Considering all the aspects described above, smartphones have a significant impact on the modern generation. However, while I was reading the article, I did not feel as a part of the generation described. In Russian language we have a proverb: ‘Statistics are the second type of lie’. I cannot claim it, but that is just what I felt when reading the article. The author focuses on the smartphone and social media issue although it is not the root of all the worst. In my opinion, the development of how all the people live their everyday lives affects them complexly. It also includes the way adults changed with the improvement of technology.

Not even once in my life I witnessed like parents just ignored their children being too busy with their devices. I think, it deeply hurt their children. Moreover, technology is an easy and useful way to get more free time for the parents. What is surprising about the fact that children raised by smartphones and tablets prefer to live their lives inside them later? But I do not see the reason to be dramatic about it as this is how life works nowadays, and all we can do is to watch our own actions.

I also noticed that there is a strong tendency to restrict teenagers in terms of going out. I mean, parents are concerned about the dangers their children can face on the streets, so they prefer to make them stay home. Modern teenagers just stopped fighting so hard for their independence as they found a perfect solution – social media. You can stay home and be engaged at the same time, so simple.

But I do not deny that overuse of smartphones is destructive towards the teenagers. In my life I met those who were unable to make real social contacts as they felt rejected and misunderstood, so they preferred their online friends to the antagonistic real world. These people needed help, and I felt wrong to blame them for their views. For teens social media is another great escape from all the real world restrictions, and it is hard to control it.

I was born in 1999, and I cannot say that everything described in the article is true about my fellows or elder friends. We went out often, fought for staying out late in the evenings, we got together, and smartphones were something that just followed us in our journeys. Moreover, they are extremely useful when it comes to search engines, maps, bank apps, music, books, etc. We do spend a lot of time on our phones, but how many things are now available in a little box that fits your hand. We just have to remember about it.

The thing that concerns me is that in the modern world people almost never memorize information. Why would we if we can always search for it? Attention issues are a common concern in terms of the impact of social media, and I also find it important. We got used to getting more information than our brain is able to capture, so we do not value all this information. That is an issue worth noticing and remembering.

We definitely have to pay attention to how we use our smartphones and social media, and we also have to remember about all the other factors that affect our wellbeing. I do not think smartphones destroyed the generation, but I believe smartphones are something this generation must learn to deal with.


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