Editorial: The kids are not all right

Friday, October 27, 2017

Many parents of school-age children probably felt a chill when they read this headline in the Atlantic last month: “Have smartphones destroyed a generation?”

It is a question that Jean M. Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and author of the Atlantic article, explores deeply in her new book, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. The term iGen, coined by Twenge, refers to post-Millennials born between 1995 and 2012.

“Members of this generation,” Twenge writes, “are growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school and do not remember a time before the internet.”

Much of Twenge’s research jibes with what many parents can see with their own eyes. Today’s teens are dating and drinking less. They are waiting longer to get their driver’s license and are less likely to be sexually active. They are also working less, even though there are plenty of jobs for teen workers. All of this makes kids physically safer than ever within their greatly extended childhoods.

But the way iGen spends its time has Twenge, the mother of three young daughters, concerned about their mental health – now and in the future.

She has found a link between the amount of time kids spend staring at screens – whether phone, tablet or laptop – and an increased risk of depression and suicide. The role social media plays in their distress is significant.

“For all their power to link kids day and night, social media also exacerbate the age-old teen concern about being left out,” Twenge writes. “Today’s teens may go to fewer parties and spend less time together in person, but when they do congregate, they document their hangouts relentlessly – on Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook. Those not invited to come along are keenly aware of it. Accordingly, the number of teens who feel left out has reached all-time highs across age groups.”

The cultural and technological gap between iGen parents, most of whom came of age as members of Generation X, and their children is significant, as generation gaps tend to be. Gen-Xers have no idea what it’s like to be a teenager in a world where smartphones are ubiquitous, where adolescence is inextricably bound to social media, and that presents a parenting challenge.

But the best approach seems simple enough: Restrict the amount of time kids spend staring at screens. Make them go outside, read a book or play something – anything – that doesn’t require wi-fi or a data plan. Twenge acknowledges it won’t be easy to keep kids off their devices, but she makes a compelling case why failure to do so could have devastating consequences for the smartphone generation and beyond.