“Meet the Members of iGen, and Help Them Get Off Their Phones”

NOVEMBER 05, 2017 

“No, Jean M. Twenge isn’t the Eeyore of generational studies. But one could be forgiven for thinking so. A decade ago, she wrote Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before (Free Press, 2006), challenging many oh-so-rosy renderings of millennials.

Yet Ms. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, sees nuances that grumpy book titles don’t capture. She recently set her sights on what she calls iGen, whose members were born after 1995, grew up with smartphones in their hands, and don’t recall a time before Instagram. She describes both encouraging and worrisome trends in her latest book, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (Atria Books, 2017). Today’s students have a “slow life strategy,” Ms. Twenge writes. “They are simply taking longer to grow up.”

The devices glued to their hands explain a lot, she says. “The iPhone isn’t the only shaping influence, but it has had an outsize impact.” Young people spend a lot less time interacting in person, she has found, and more time engaging online. Compared with millennials, she says, iGen is less entitled and less narcissistic, yet more vulnerable and less happy.

Ms. Twenge spoke with The Chronicle about the downsides of virtual socializing, how young people define “safety,” and why the news about kids these days is complicated.

Come on, Jean. Can we really make big claims about an entire generation?

Yes, we can, at least on average. That’s always the caveat. But there are some very interesting differences with iGen that we can see in very large, nationally representative surveys of teens and entering college students. I’ve drawn on surveys of millions of young adults, open-ended questionnaires, and in-depth interviews. No matter the method, my goal in writing about a generation is to listen to young people and understand how their lives are different.

You describe some sharp breaks between the two youngest generations.

I’ve been looking at differences among generations for about 25 years, and I got used to seeing fairly measured changes. But then, around 2011, I started seeing changes in teens’ mental health and in the way they were spending their leisure time. Pretty much every indicator of the latter just dropped off a cliff, whether it was going out, hanging out with friends, or going to parties.

There was an even more sudden shift in loneliness, symptoms of depression, life satisfaction, and happiness. As time went on, other indicators of mental health showed the same patterns. That got me wondering what happened around 2011-12 that caused such an unusual break. It was right around when we reached market saturation with smartphones. And that’s when teens’ unhappiness began to spike. It’s iGen teens and young adults themselves who will say they’re suffering.

One of your findings is that all of that time spent online isn’t necessarily rewarding. For many, it’s draining.

Right. There’s a really stark difference between activities that involve a screen, which correlate with unhappiness, and things that don’t involve a screen, which correlate with more happiness.

I’ve heard from parents of teens, as well as middle-school and high-school teachers, who’ve said that all around them, each day, they see kids addicted to their phones, to the exclusion of living their lives. One teacher said he’s surprised by how many of his students won’t look him in the eye.

People have asked me if they should snatch phones out of teens’ hands. No. The sweet spot for mental health and happiness is having that phone but not using it to excess.

Please tell us some good news.

Most people would agree it’s a good thing that fewer teens are drinking alcohol and having sex, two things that have declined from Generation X to millennials to iGen. Yet if you focus just on whether trends are good or bad, you’ve missed the big picture.

Narcissism and entitlement are going down, but the bottom has kind of fallen out on mental health and positive emotions. iGen is much less optimistic and much less confident than millennials. That has advantages: Their expectations are more realistic, which could serve them well, especially in the workplace. The downside is that more of them are unhappy.

Why do older people love talking about — or fretting and griping about — younger generations so much?

The impulse doesn’t usually begin with criticism. It begins with curiosity, especially among faculty members and high-school teachers, who want to understand their students, just as parents try to understand their children.
Then, yes, the worries come in, because of the things kids are struggling with. What may look like criticism is really just concern.

The Chronicle recently published an article about a brand-new lazy river at a major university. I was struck by what the president told students at the ribbon-cutting: “I don’t want you to leave the campus ever. So whatever we need to do to keep you here, we’ll keep you safe here. We’re here to give you everything you need.”

That’s classic!

It echoed what you’ve written about how students want physical and emotional “safety.” What role do colleges play in shaping those expectations?

There are many things happening here. One is that this generation and their parents, rightly so, are concerned about rising college costs. On the other hand, they want extremely safe environments that provide leisure and recreation.

I’m not saying those goals are bad, but there are trade-offs. One is higher tuition and fees. Another is the controversy around free speech on campus. How far do you take physical and emotional safety? Do you take it so far that you’re not going to converse with, or hear, speakers whom you might disagree with? That’s already happened.

You say that iGeners are concerned about equality and deeply afraid of offending one another. Why are we seeing greater concern about controversial speakers, even the desire to be protected from speech?

Some of it is the interest in safety. Also, when you spend more time with friends electronically, words are the place where hurt resides. To the extreme, you get the belief of words as violence. iGens don’t spend, physically, as much time with one another. Bullying and arguments have moved onto the phone, and words have become more important than ever. It almost turns the old saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” on its head.

What do people in classrooms need to know about iGen?

Textbooks need to be shorter, more interactive. It’s so common for faculty members to say, “Oh, my students won’t read the book,” and it’s not surprising, given the decline in reading during leisure time. In a college course, that’s distressing, and it needs to change. But it’s not just students who need to change. The materials need to change, too.

Where’s the line between adapting and capitulating to the perceived whims of today’s youth?

It’s finding a balance between giving students what they want but also giving them what they need for long-term success. The good news is there are many things you can do in the classroom to accomplish both. One involves this generation’s extrinsic focus on goals. You have to use carrots and sticks a little bit more, whether that’s a quiz on the reading, points for class participation, or maybe an electronic textbook that enforces a deadline. They respond to that.

I shifted to an electronic textbook in my classes a year ago, and I was shocked that several students said they liked having to complete readings by a certain time. And I was like, “Did you just say ‘Thank you’ for making you do something by a deadline? Are you sure you’re a college student?” But it’s a reward, and they respond to that.

As faculty, we can’t do that without also saying, OK, we need to have some joy in here, too, some intrinsic motivation, too. That can come through encouraging discussion and meeting this generation where they live, which is often video. Short videos have to be pedagogically sound and relevant, but some video that’s engaging is really essential these days.

Your book isn’t just about iGen. It’s also a reflection of their parents, right?

What I’ve learned as a parent is it’s very hard to make your kids happy in the short term and keep their long-term well-being in mind. Those two goals conflict.

But we have to start putting screen time in the same category as junk food. Sure, you can maybe have dessert most days, but you shouldn’t be having fast food for every meal. There needs to be a limit.

The response from a lot of teens has been, “Yeah, but adults do that, too.” And they’re right. This isn’t just a problem for iGen. It behooves us all to think more carefully about the amount of time we spend on social media and on our phones”.

This article is part of:

About the author


More posts by