STUDY: Smartphones have stunted the next generation

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Psychologist Jean Twenge calls the next generation iGen, a reference to iPhones, defining them as: “Born in 1995 and later, they grew up with cell phones, had an Instagram page before they started high school, and do not remember a time before the internet.”

Twenge studied the phenomena of today’s children, the first to be raised without memory of life before smartphones, in her book 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.”

Her studies reveal that smartphones and other screens are leading today’s youth to adopt antisocial behavior, not seek independence from their parents, and to generally be disengaged from society, which they are mostly watching from the comfort of their bedrooms.

“The Millennials grew up with the web as well, but it wasn’t ever-present in their lives, at hand at all times, day and night,” explained Twenge in an article she wrote in The Atlantic’s September issue. Citing a 2017 survey of more than 5,000 American teens, she reveals that three out of four own an iPhone.

She goes on to note, “The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.”

Twenge points out that today’s teens are also less likely to date. According to data, “Only about 56 percent of high-school seniors in 2015 went out on dates; for Boomers and Gen Xers, the number was about 85 percent.”

With less dating comes less sexual activity; a fact revealed in the 2016 teen birth rate, which hit an all-time low since peaking  in 1991.

The psychologist also notes that today’s teens are markedly less interested in driving than the teens of days gone by. More than one in four high school seniors today don’t have a drivers license.

“For some, Mom and Dad are such good chauffeurs that there’s no urgent need to drive,” she states as one of the reasons for this.

Another difference between iGen and previous generations is that teens aren’t working as much.

“In the late 1970’s, 77-percent of high-school seniors worked for pay during the school year; by the mid-2010’s, only 55-percent did,” says Twenge, pointing out, “The number of eighth-graders who work for pay has been cut in half. These declines accelerated during the Great Recession, but teen employment has not bounced back, even though job availability has.”

Beginning with Millennials and continuing with iGen, this is a trend which has nearly brought adolescence to a screeching halt as today’s “18-year-olds now act more like 15-year-olds used to, and 15-year-olds more like 13-year-olds. Childhood now stretches well into high school,” says Twenge.

Noting that we live in an “information economy that rewards higher education more than early work history,” Twenge finds that “parents may be inclined to encourage their kids to stay home and study rather than to get a part-time job. Teens, in turn, seem to be content with this homebody arrangement—not because they’re so studious, but because their social life is lived on their phone. They don’t need to leave home to spend time with their friends.”

The data also shows that today’s high school kids aren’t spending as much time on homework, and have more leisure time than Gen X teens did, not less.

So, what are they doing with that time? They’re on their phones, “in their room, alone and often distressed,” says Twenge, noting that teens today don’t get together with their friends like they used to.

“It’s not only a matter of fewer kids partying, fewer kids are spending time simply hanging out. That’s something most teens used to do: nerds and jocks, poor kids and rich kids, C students and A students. The roller rink, the basketball court, the town pool, the local necking spot—they’ve all been replaced by virtual spaces accessed through apps and the web,” she says.

The Monitoring the Future survey, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and designed to be nationally representative, has asked 12th-graders more than 1,000 questions every year since 1975, and queried 8th-10th graders since 1991. The survey asks teens how happy they are, and also how much of their leisure time they spend on various activities, including non-screen activities, such as in-person social interaction and exercise, and, in recent years, screen activities such as using social media, texting, and browsing the web.

“The results could not be clearer: Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on non-screen activities are more likely to be happy,” says Twenge.

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