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Julie Lynn’s Christmas book choice: Misery of the smartphone generation


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.
Jean M Twenge PhD, iGen. Atria Books (imprint of Simon & Schuster), August 2017

One of the upsides of the smartphone (and there aren’t many) is that teenagers don’t appear to be killing each other as much as they used to. The downside is that they are killing themselves. According to US psychologist Jean M Twenge, 46 per cent more teens took their own lives in 2015 than in 2007, a period of time that saw a steady decline in the homicide rate among teens. She writes: ‘To put it bluntly: teens have to be with each other in person to kill each other, but they can cyberbully each other into suicide through their phones . . . screen communication can be isolating . . . It is distressing and unacceptable that so many more teens are killing themselves than did a few years ago.’

Professor Twenge has recently published a book we all need to take a look at. It’s called 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. She may be an American academic whose data is from the other side of the pond but what is true Stateside is largely going to be true over here. If not now, then soon.

The picture that emerges time and again is that something is happening in around 2011 in the lives and minds of young people. This is the year when there are ‘large abrupt shifts in teens’ behaviour and emotional states’, when there are ‘steep mountains’ and ‘sheer cliffs’ in the line graphs; things start to fall away, go over the edge. Tragically, for some young people that means literally.

iGen is the name Twenge has catchily coined to describe those born after 1995. They had mobile phones (flip phones – ‘dumb phones’) as children, smartphones in early adolescence and they do not remember a time before the internet. They are different from any generation before them. They are certainly unhappier, this cohort of young people now coming of age. Twenge’s book is ostensibly an analysis of where things are and is not out to indict the little gadget in young hands that is so lighting up their palms and darkening their lives. But the numbers show us that the smartphone’s sordid fingerprints are all over the scene of the crime, the crime being the unprecedented rise in teen loneliness, anxiety and depression. Twenge cites Monitoring the Future 2013-2015 survey to reveal that 17-18-year-olds spend six hours daily with their smartphones on ‘new media’, in other words texting (two and a half hours), surfing the internet (two hours), electronic gaming (one and a half hours) and video chat (about half an hour). The average teen checks his or her phone 80 times a day. It is addictive behaviour that cuts across race and class. When 13-16-year-olds were asked to respond to statements such as `I often feel left out of things’ or `A lot of times I feel lonely’, 31 per cent more felt lonely in 2015 than in 2011.

There is a mental health crisis – fact. It has rocketed since the Internet migrated from the confines of the desktop into the human flesh of the palm – fact. Let’s be clear: we are talking social media. We are talking Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat. The smartphone is so central to life for most of iGeners that it plays a major role in what they think and how they live.

Twenge has more than comprehensive and rigorous data and an absorbing structure to her book. She also has a nice way with metaphor. Describing an item in a Buzzfeed gallery of photos of abandoned malls (kids don’t hang out in them any more since they’re too busy alone in their bedrooms messaging each other) she notices one showing a circular bank of payphones where ‘at the base, a phone book lies with its pages splayed, roadkill on the information superhighway’. On how smartphones’ blue light may be causing melatonin disruption (and let’s set aside less-than-restful drama-filled social media exchanges), in effect stealing sleep, she writes: ‘When the phone calls its siren song, teens crash into the rocks instead of crashing into their beds.’

Pity poor iGen. The world they live in is not of their making. It is we who have brought them up to grow up so slowly, to demand to be safe and protected and unoffended (yup, safe spaces, trigger warnings, disinvitations, microaggressions), to avoid responsibility, delay financial independence, develop an aversion to books, to the News, to actually talking to each other face to face. They don’t drink but they like marijuana, they talk about sex (and presumably watch it, for this is Generation Porn) but they don’t do it because, as with hearing opinions which are disagreeable, it compromises ‘emotional safety’. Twenge puts a positive spin where she can, insisting that iGen is after all tolerant, sensible and open minded. But this comes at a price.

And how about this for a final thought? Twenge tells us how tech CEOs strictly regulate their own children’s technology use. Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs was asked in 2010 if his own children loved the iPad. ‘They haven’t used it,’ was his reply to the shocked reporter at the New York Times. ‘We limit how much technology our kids use at home.’ Other tech bosses were similarly cautious when it came to protecting their own loved ones. It certainly has an echo of that other sector where those who deal don’t use: ‘Never get high on your own supply.’ Stuck for gift ideas for the festive season? Anything at all that releases someone you care about from their tiny life as clickbait.

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Julie Lynn
Julie Lynn
Julie Lynn, a former journalist, teacher and full time mother, currently tutors teenagers in English and French.

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