iGen — Jean M. Twenge: The kids aren’t all right?

It’s somewhat hard for me to love iGen because it fits the overall genre of “the kids are going to hell,” even if the author is savvy to that very problem and disavows it in the intro. I’m also now just old enough to no longer be part of the kids but not so old that I’ve forgotten all those “Oh my god the teens!” stories that described me as a teenager and college student.

In grad school, one of my professors had a book that assembled early reactions to the novel, which from the late 18th Century until close to the 20th Century was seen as depraved, a waste of time, a waste of talent, and morally corrupting. In other words, an activity that we now perceive as pretty high status was then seen as very low status, which often caused young men to be lazy and dissolute and young women to be morally impure. Corruption was clear and it came from words.

Oddly, in some ways those early criticisms were right, just too early: as a society we have largely secularized, and, although I wouldn’t lay all or even most of the reason why on the novel as a genre, it likely played a role by more freely disseminating information and letting people think for themselves, rather than having the clergy do all the thinking and information dissemination from the pulpit. When you let people think and read for themselves, many of them become less enamored of tedious religious works and the fellows who interpret those religious works to mean that giving to the church is good and sex is bad—very, very bad.

Today the smartphone is the great bugaboo of the age and we’ve not figured out how it ought to be integrated into society. Among my own peer group it’s now somewhat common to have phone-free parties, the better to be in the moment and avoid incriminating next-morning evidence, but it’s still common to lay a phone face-up on a table over coffee or drinks. But smartphone cultural practices haven’t really firmed up and smartphones have apparently taken over the lives of the Youth. The skeptical word “apparently” probably isn’t needed in the preceding sentence, because Twenge has lots of data demonstrating it.

One of the many admirable things about the book is how data-driven it is. Data, plus mostly avoiding the “The kids are going to hell” stuff, makes the book wildly readable and interesting. Still, not everyone is convinced; here’s one writer’s context and here’s another’s, arguing that smartphones aren’t actually destroying a generation.

The strange thing to me about constant smartphone life is that it seems so boring. Maybe from the inside it’s better. It’s all communication and little if any content underneath that communication. So much chatter and so little to say. Boredom as a theme runs through the book:

More and more teens are leaving high school never having had a paying job, driven a car by themselves, gone out on a date, had sex, or tried alcohol.

Sounds like a boring life. But it may also be a cheap one. Smartphone use may have deleterious effects but it’s also pretty cheap; once you have the phone and the data, marginal use is nearly free. So cost-effectiveness may drive smartphone obsession too, although Twenge doesn’t say it explicitly. Still, at some point I think even teenagers should get exhausted with relentless texting about nothing and want to go do things in the real world. Everyone feels left out but no one does anything about it.

Still, leading a boring life is not unique to this generation, although it’s wasting time online instead of wasting it on TV. For many decades, the average American watched four to five hours of TV a night—a terrible waste, it seems to me, especially given how much space was dedicated to commercials, but that’s what people did and what many people continue to do. If you have a choice of wasting time via TV or smartphone, smartphone seems like a marginal win.

Most likely, I think, teenagers are wasting most of their time, like most teenagers of most developed countries of most of the last hundred or so years, and will probably quit it when they have to pay their own rent.

Yet knowledge of smartphone problems seems also to widespread:

iGen’ers are addicted to their phones, and they know it. Many also know it’s not entirely a good thing. It’s clear that most teens (and adults) would be better off if they spent less time with screens. “Social media is destroying our lives,” one teen told Nancy Jo Sales in her book American Girls. “So why don’t you go off it?” Sales asked. “Because then we would have no life,” the girl said.

That seems unlikely, but logic is tough and most people’s revealed preferences show phone love. Apparently the data show that iGen is “at the forefront of the worst mental health crisis in decades, with rates of teen depression and suicide skyrocketing since 2011.” I wonder if something has really changed, or if something has changed regarding the self-reporting that people do. Perhaps it’s now more socially acceptable to report depression, in surveys or to doctors and others.

We get similar data later in the book: “Nevertheless, the case highlights a nationwide problem: the often inadequate resources for mental health assistance on campus.” If mental health assistance is inadequate today, when was it adequate? Why? What’s changed? And are we looking historically and cross culturally? In 1942 – 45, American men of college age were mostly fighting the Nazis and Japanese and probably also had inadequate mental health resources. Today, Kurdish teenagers fight ISIS. Because someone has a worse problem than you do doesn’t invalidate the problem, but there’s a startling lack of context to assertions like these; if the problem is the phone, turn off the phone.

This generation is supposed to be more inclusive by some measures, which I can believe, but I doubt it’s more inclusive overall; instead I suspect it’s going to be as exclusive as any generation, just based on different criteria. What those criteria are I can’t say, but I’m sure they’ll be there.

I’ve chatted a lot with a friend who grew up in the center of Gen X, and he remembers a generation that, according to the media, was filled with druggie dropouts who totally lack ambition. Those same people are now in the middle of their lives and seem to be fine, with reasonably normal distributions, and most of them seem to do what most people end up doing: getting a job and having kids. The dropouts of the late 80s and early 90s are the dads and moms of today.

One interesting thing for readers of this blog: it seems that iGen teens are “less likely to read than teens of previous eras:”

In the late 1970s, the clear majority of teens read a book or magazine nearly every day, but by 2015, only 16% did. In other words, three times as many Boomers as iGen’ers read a book or magazine every day.

You can quibble with that particular metric but Twenge presents others. Moreover:

Perhaps this move away from print is innocuous, especially if teens are still keeping up their academic skills. But they are not: SAT scores have slid since the mid-2000s, especially in writing (a 13-point decline since 2006) and critical reading (a 13-point decline since 2005).

This is echoed by 2007 article “Twilight of the Books.” One fast trick I use in assessing student writing skills is simple: I ask students to write their favorite book on an index card and why that book is a favorite. Answers tend to correlate to reading and writing skills.

Still, when I was in high school I liked to read and was mostly looked at as a weirdo for enjoying reading. In college I read Richard Russo’s novel Straight Man during a summer when I was a lifeguard, and the other lifeguards thought it weird that I’d laugh because of a book. So while the data may point to a decline in reading, I’m not sure that the overall social situation has changed too much.

Mostly, I wonder what will happen to iGen’ers as they age. The empty-headed seem to have a harder and harder time the older they get and the more the structures that define high school and college fall away. But that too may have been true for a long time: people who try new things and continually learn and grow tend to have better lives than those who don’t.

Recommendations like this: “I believe textbooks also need to stop covering so many topics in so much detail” seem unlikely to help people develop personalities or reading skills. That is a real quote, by the way: it’s on page 308. Twenge qualifies it in the rest of the paragraph, but the real world remains complex and trying to simplify it for the militantly ignorant will not help them or human understanding of the world. Ignorance is a condition we ought to aspire to cure, not perpetuate.

Still, I have seen arguments like this one since forever:

When I’ve polled my students about how they’d prefer to spend class time, most have said they are fine with lectures as long as they convey information that is helpful to doing well on exams. They like discussion but don’t want it to take too much time away from learning the material they’ll be tested on.

Lectures have always been terrible ways of conveying information; they were just technologically expedient for much of human history, and jettisoning them will lose little. Still, when students are very much focused on exam or paper grades, I often like to ask: What’s the point of doing well on the paper? Usually the answer is “to do well in class,” and so on, but if one extends far enough outward the more interesting answers start to pop up.

Bottom line is that the book is interesting but ought to be read skeptically. Overall I’m happy to have read it and read the whole thing carefully, which isn’t so common. It’s fun to imagine how this book will appear 50 years from now, when someone being born today might write about it. I imagine a historian or social critic who analyzes it as a document of its times, when those times and the processes immediately roiling the present have passed. Most of the books about the horrors of the generations that came of age in the 60s or 70s now look at least a little hysterical. From the vantage of 50 years later, I suspect this generation will look like it turned out okay too.

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