Professors, K–12 teachers, and parents are worried. College students listen to lectures online and feel no need to open a textbook. High school students seem emotionally fragile, worrying about their image on social media. Children spend hours playing computer games or watching online porn, seemingly beyond the reach of their mothers and fathers. Jean Twenge’s recent book, 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, serves to heighten the anxiety.
Young people today are a “lonely, dislocated generation,” she argues, and we should blame smartphones and screen time for their ruin.1 A professor of psychology at San Diego State University, Twenge presents her claims as the best science of today’s youth, but there’s more to the story than her data can reveal.
Members of “iGen”—Twenge’s name for those who were born after 1994 and before approximately 2013 (her exact end date for this “generation” is as yet undetermined)2—were the first “to enter adolescence with smartphones already in their hands.” For them, Twenge asserts, the internet and the “fast pace of technological change” are facts of life that have made iGen’ers “quite different from young people in previous decades.” And not necessarily in good ways.
Relative to their elders, Twenge concludes, iGen’ers have fewer in-person experiences and are less socially and emotionally skilled. They are also lonelier, more insecure and depressed, less independent, less sexually active and slower to enter into relationships, and they worry more about their physical and emotional safety. They are comparatively less religious, less spiritual, more questioning of authority and rules, more cynical about government, and more individualistic in their outlook. They spend more time with media and less time honing critical thinking skills, are more doubtful about their economic prospects and less entrepreneurial (in contrast to the millennials), and are more oriented to equality and less bothered by restrictions on speech than were prior generations. Not only are they more reluctant to grow into adulthood, today’s youth are, as her book title boldly states, “completely unprepared” for their futures.
Are questions designed for earlier generations the best ones to assess the experience of this new generation?
Precisely because Twenge’s claims are so startling, they merit a close look. Her conclusions about iGen come from her statistical comparisons with the behaviors and attitudes of earlier generations. Four national surveys anchor Twenge’s research. Two of the surveys, The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System and the Monitoring the Future survey, have collected data on secondary school students for decades. The American Freshman Survey has queried new college attendees over many years, and the General Social Survey has similarly questioned adults 18 years and older since 1972.
Twenge likes these particular survey databases for several reasons—for starters, the data are publicly available and the surveys aim to be representative of the diverse American population. Most importantly, though, each survey allowed her to compare responses from iGen’ers with older generations’ responses to the same questions when they were the iGen’ers’ age. She acknowledges that American demographics have changed over the decades these surveys have been in use but feels confident the results reflect generational, as opposed to changing demographic, trends.3
To her credit, Twenge has included graphs in her book that allow readers an opportunity to assess her data about iGen. These statistical illustrations depict the responses of age peers to specific survey questions and show how they’ve changed over time. For example, the chapter about physical and emotional safety includes a line graph showing differences in how secondary school students responded to the following two survey questions: “I get a real kick out of doing things that are a little dangerous” (approximately 50 percent affirmative responses in 1991, compared with under 45 percent in 2015) and “I like to test myself every now and then by doing something a little risky” (almost 50 percent affirmative responses in 1991, compared with approximately 40 percent in 2015).
Without reference to how such percentage differences might be statistically significant, however, Twenge asserts that this data reveals that iGen has “a general attitude of avoiding risk and danger,” and speculates about whether that attitude also pertains to intellectual, social, and emotional risk. Throughout the book, Twenge extrapolates similarly firm-sounding conclusions, even when a review of the graphs suggests a more nuanced conclusion might have been warranted.
Although they are valuable for showing changes in broad trends over time, surveys, like all research methods, have limitations. For example, survey questions are subject to being misunderstood or misinterpreted by respondents, potentially compromising the results, especially when the survey is administered widely. Similarly, because survey questions are designed for large-scale data collection, they generally cannot provide for the kinds of nuanced responses that can be obtained in face-to-face interviews or focus groups. Finally, and most importantly, the causes of behaviors and attitudes can be difficult to determine through survey responses.
Robot and Juliet
At the heart of Twenge’s book is her concern about two strong correlations that emerged from the survey data beginning in 2011 and continuing through 2015. These were a dramatic increase in responses revealing anxiety, loneliness, depression, and suicide and a parallel increase in self-reported time spent on social media by means of smartphones. Although she cautions against the idea that survey data can prove that technology causes these negative feelings, at many points in the book she comes very close to indicting and convicting smartphone and screen use.
There might very well be other causes for these changes. Twenge briefly raises and then dismisses a number of alternative explanations for iGen mental health issues, such as the 2008 recession and unemployment, academic pressure, TV watching, and lack of time engaging in sports and exercise. Allowing in factors unrelated to technology, she does note that helicopter parenting and its constraints on children’s independence may be a contributing factor, and that lack of sufficient sleep—which she also attributes primarily to smartphone use—may be impeding both mental and physical health.
Ultimately, though, Twenge does not hold back from telling readers that technology is the cause of young people’s crisis. “New-media screen time … is the worm at the core of the apple,” she surmises. Not surprisingly, then, she also advocates strongly for delaying and reducing smartphone use and social media participation by young people and, by extension, by adults as well.
This conclusion—that iGen’s mental health depends on limiting kids’ smartphone use—has provoked several critiques of the book.4 Some of Twenge’s critics point to parents, noting their own technologically enabled distraction and consequent neglect of the kids. Others question Twenge’s findings on mental health, observing that decreased stigma might mean greater willingness to acknowledge psychological challenges. Finally, some have questioned her singular focus on technology, asking why she neglected to look for correlations with other social trends, like the decline in family stability.
Those under 25 were “acculturated” from early childhood in an environment of continuous and profound transformation.
Twenge’s analysis is too simplistic, these critics agree. More sensitive conclusions will come only from a broader approach, one that has a place for survey data but rejects Twenge’s categorical statement that survey data is the “gold standard” for research.
General survey responses can tell only a partial story and one dependent on the carefully worded questions crafted by researchers in their offices. Twenge recognizes this problem, referencing her conversations with 23 young people, as well as some information gathered from her own students, online surveys, and a review of college newspapers, as support for her conclusions. Still, she minimizes their importance. Would spending more time talking with today’s youth, listening to the words they use and the complexities of their views about themselves, their elders, and their peers give a different view? We might even ask: Are questions designed for earlier generations the best ones to assess the experience of this new generation? Could iGen’ers themselves guide us toward a better understanding of their outlooks and behavior?
Consider the ongoing research of our team at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS). We too are interested in the behavior and values of people under the age of 25, but we are approaching the topic differently, with ethnographic, sociological, linguistic, and historical tools. Our team began by eliciting the perspective of iGen’ers themselves. Interviewing college-age students in the US and the UK, we asked about their activities, values, relationships, personal histories, and views of the future. In addition to the kind of yes/no answers, or similarly standardized responses, that are common in surveys, we are asking open-ended questions to elicit more personal, in-depth perspectives and values. (An example would be: “Do you see the world differently from your parents? If so, how?”)
We are complementing our ethnographic research with a computerized analysis of iGen language use, examining the memes and new vocabulary that have recently entered the iGen lexicon. Among our interesting findings from this linguistic study is that young people now use a range of family-oriented terms, well beyond the “brother” and “sister” terms that were common in the past, to describe their different types of peer relationships.5 This change in peer terminology helps us understand our interviewees’ comments about their “families of choice” as distinct from their birth families.
We are also using online surveys to help us evaluate whether the common themes that emerge from our interviews and linguistic analysis might be shared more broadly within the iGen age group. Finally, our research includes a comparative look at prior times in history when youth grew up amid dramatic technological and social change.
Turning Kids into Capital
Our research team is particularly interested in the 25-and-under age group because they were “acculturated” from early childhood in an environment of continuous and profound transformation. Pick your social institution—such as family, church, school, or workplace—and in every case one can see that significant changes have been taking place, often at dizzying speed.
Examples of such changes abound: families eat dinner together much less regularly than they used to; teachers increasingly “guide” students rather than serve as all-knowing sources of knowledge; the “gig” economy takes workers out of the traditional employer/employee structure; and religious leaders worry about declines in attendance at services. We want to learn more about the cultural values these iGen’ers were learning from an early age, how the changes in the institutions were shaping both what and how they absorbed this new instruction, and how they reshaped these ideas.
Today’s online publics, such as chat groups and fandoms, fulfill functions like those fulfilled by school clubs and bowling teams in the past, but they are also quite different in some ways. We are learning more about which behaviors and values reflect a change in form (such as texting versus phoning a friend) and which appear to indicate a more substantive change (such as expectations about privacy and in-person contact).
Although our research won’t be representative of iGen as a whole in the way that Twenge’s use of survey data permits, our combination of approaches will allow us to better understand today’s young adult culture and to pinpoint more carefully how the actions and worldviews of a subset of iGen’ers reflect meaningful change from the past. These data are a necessary companion to the kind of survey work that Twenge holds dear, for they can offer added insight into how and why ideas change over time.
During the last few years, when I’ve heard older adults fret about iGen, the refrain from a Bob Dylan dirge always pops into my head: “Because something is happening here / But you don’t know what it is / Do you, Mister Jones?” Like older generations in the 1960s, my generation has been taken aback by the changes sparked by the debut of the commercial internet in 1995. It should come as no surprise, then, that iGen’ers see the world differently from their elders. iGen’ers take for granted that information and expertise can be obtained instantaneously online, that one can see and talk with a friend in China with absolutely no impediment of time or space, and that friendships made and sustained online can often be more meaningful than face-to-face relationships.
Twenge extrapolates firm-sounding conclusions, even when the graphs suggests a more nuanced conclusion might have been warranted.
iGen’ers assume transformation is the norm because it has been a constant feature of their social experience. When asked about his values, one Stanford student told us that his highest value was flexibility. As he explained, he had no idea how work would be changing over the course of his lifetime, so he needed to make sure that he could stay flexible enough, and nimble enough, to change with it. Other students we have interviewed, in both the US and England, would concur.
We elders—those over 40 years old—carry with us foundational understandings that our young people do not share. Even the experience of time itself has changed. Many of us still carry a lingering sense from our own experience as young people that our days will be broken into chunks bounded by breakfast, lunch, dinner, and bedtime. For those who have grown up constantly moving from website to website and app to app, however, the norm is a day that consists of a continuous flow of smaller, less defined, bits of time. Even if we’ve become adept at using contemporary technologies and relating in a modern world, we parents and educators are still products of the pre-internet world.
In some ways, parents and educators are reminiscent of immigrants who see their children having an ease and facility with the new country’s culture that they can’t fully share. Metaphorically, we can speak the new language of the 21st century, but our accent remains strong. And like the children of immigrants, iGen’ers know they must sometimes be the interpreters. One student explained to our research team that she thinks her generation, while close to parents, feels some anger that their elders are, in essence, foreigners in an internet-connected world and therefore unable to provide their children with applicable guidance about how to prepare for the future.
Even if, as some of her critics assert, she has put too much of the blame on smartphones, Twenge is right to be alarmed about some of the iGen attributes she describes. It is worrisome to see a decline in critical thinking skills, but not just among iGen’ers, in older adults as well. It is worrisome to see the apparent declines in mental health, again not just among iGen’ers, but in older adults as well. We don’t understand the personal or societal impacts of having so much of our daily lives being mediated by screens. None of us, including the iGen’ers, can say with certainty what jobs will remain for human beings in a world of self-driving cars, automated medical diagnoses, and robotic and 3D-printed manufacturing of all manner of goods.
We cannot, however, answer all these uncertainties, worries, and concerns by looking in the rearview mirror alone. Teaching today’s young people more about empathy and compassion, critical analysis, and how to appreciate quiet, contemplative time without networked stimuli is essential. But we also need to look ahead, to the time—which technologists tell us is sooner than we might think—when artificial intelligence, robotics, and genetic engineering will make even more dramatic changes to human society.
Mostly, however, we need to do a better job of listening. Talking with members of iGen about their past, present, and future is eye-opening. These young people, who really have no choice but to look ahead, are showing us how to adapt to the future, but we’ll only learn ourselves if we pay attention to what they are saying.
My partners in the research project discussed in this review are Sarah Ogilvie, a linguist at Stanford and this year a Berggruen Fellow at CASBS, Jane Shaw, a cultural historian and Dean for Religious Life at Stanford, and Linda Woodhead, a sociologist at Lancaster University. The project has received essential incubation support from CASBS, including as the administrator of a generous grant from The Knight Foundation.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.
- Jean M. Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?,” The Atlantic (September 2017). ↩
- Twenge, who has also studied and written about the millennial generation, claims to have invented the “iGen” label. Others have described this age group as “Generation Z.” The “i” in iGen has been interpreted to mean “the internet,” the narcissistic “I,” or the “i” employed by Apple in the iPhone, the iPad, and other products connected to networks. ↩
- Twenge notes that one out of every four iGen’ers is Hispanic and that, post-2009, non-Hispanic whites are no longer a generational majority in the US. ↩
- See, for example, Malcolm Harris, “Are Smartphones Destroying a Generation, or Are Consultants?,” Select All (blog), New York, August 28, 2017; and Lisa Guernsey, “Don’t Take Away Your Teen’s Phone,” Slate, August 10, 2017. ↩
- The term “sib,” for example, is often used by iGen’ers to refer to a close friend rather than to an actual sibling. ↩