Of Smart Phones and Emotional Safety: A Reflection on iGen


Guest Blog by Robert Brenneman, Assoc. Prof. of Sociology at Saint Michael’s College, VT

Not long ago I had a conversation with my 11-year-old son, Nico, that surprised even me. He had recently begun his first year of middle school in the local public school system and was considering the option of attending an after-school program centered on Lego building, something which he loves to do in his free time. But there was just one problemstaying late meant he would have to ride the elementary school bus home instead of the middle school bus. Of course, this was not to his liking, but not for the reasons I expected. “I like the middle school bus ‘coz it’s quiet,” he said. Huh? I was stumped. Whoever heard of a bus filled with sixth, seventh and eighth graders that’s “quiet”?! Not me.  “Yeah,” he went on, “On the middle school bus everyone’s on their phones and no one bothers me.” Nico is growing up iGen.

In her book iGen, Psychologist and San Diego State University Professor Jean Twenge writes about a generational shift that is changing what it means to be a teenager and young adult today. The lengthy sub-title of her book pretty much gives away the punchline: 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). And let me say from the outset, I am smitten. Twenge is a superb writer with a penchant for taking reams of data and helping readers make sense of the patterns within itwhile also alerting us to all of the caveats and risks associated with too-sweeping generalizations. In this case, however, Twenge has found some fairly profound cultural shifts that truly demand our attention. For starters, and this will surprise few readers, youth from iGen (a birth cohort that she identifies as having been born from 1995-2012) are more electronically connected than ever. This is, after all, the first generation to have been born after the rise of the commercial internet and which came of age just as smart phones made internet usage, social media, and electronic screens absolutely ubiquitous. Thus, almost all of the trends she identifies—including time spent looking at screens—apply across the board to US youth from all races, ethnicities and economic/educational levels. The trend toward greater time spent on the internet and/or screens correlates with a number of negative outcomes that have spiked rather suddenly. Teen rates of self-reported depression, thoughts of suicide, and loneliness are among the most obvious. But the actual rate of suicide has also increased. Interestingly though, the teen homicide rate has fallen at the same time as the teen suicide rate has risen. And here’s where her argument is, I think, at its most convincing.

Teens of the “iGen” are spending a lot less time actually interacting face-to-face, and a lot more time virtually interacting. One of the upsides to this is that these teens are safer from being physically harmed by others. Rates of rape, alcohol abuse, and teen pregnancy are falling along with the falling homicide rate. But emotional harm seems to have gone in the other direction. For Twenge—and for me since I came to this book fairly convinced of many of these trends already—the single most likely culprit for both the rise in physical safety as well as emotional anxiety and depression, is the rise of smart phones and social media. This is the case, argues Twenge, because a) no other comparable shift in culture and/or the pastimes of teens took place during the same time period (2008-2015) when the shift in outcomes are most pronounced, and because b) there is clear evidence from recent national surveys correlating increasing screen-time with deteriorating mental well-being.

Just as interesting is the fact that time spent in those activities that involve face-to-face interaction correlate with better mental health outcomes. For instance, in one of the many fascinating graphics she provides, the top two activities associated with a lowered “risk of high depressive symptoms” among 10th graders is 1) Engaging in Sports/exercise, and 2) (are you ready for this?) Attending religious services. Coming in third is “In-person social interaction.” What increases the risk of depressive symptoms? According to the same national survey, which is carried out by the University of Michigan’s National Institute on Drug Abuse; TV watching, internet news, and spending time on social networking websites all raise the odds of kids reporting symptoms of depression. According to additional details on her methods webpage (see page 22 in the pdf doc) this positive correlation is true even after controlling for race, class, and time spent interacting in person. In other words, kids who spend lots of time looking at screens are reporting more depression symptoms not just because they’re interacting less in person. The screen time appears to have a negative effect apart from and beyond the “crowd-out effect” of staying in rather than going out. There is a lot more to say about the research here and Twenge is well aware that her thesis is bold and therefore requires lots of data as well as careful explanation of the likely mechanisms at work.

 This book, however, is not narrowly focused on the screens and social media. It is a broad and deep analysis of the iGen. Anyone working with youth, including teachers, pastors, counselors or college professors like myself will find this book to be a valuable read. For instance, she also pays a lot of attention to a rise in a culture of individualism, especially in a chapter called “Irreligious: Losing My Religion (and Spirituality).” She reports that although for decades American sociologists have pointed out that Americans have remained far more religious than their European counterparts, that is starting to change and, if iGen is any indicator, is likely to change a lot more quickly soon. The reasons for this are multiple, and in this chapter as well as others, smart phones and social media do not receive as much attention perhaps because the rise of hyperindividualism—a key cultural shift contributing to young people’s skittishness around anything religious—was already in place well before the appearance of the iphone.

Another chapter I appreciated is called “Insulated but Not Intrinsic: More Safety and Less Community.” There she examines some of the trends that have been getting attention in the wider media recently, including the rise of “safe spaces” which many iGen-ers seem to demand as a kind of human right. Twenge agrees with certain other public intellectuals like Jonathan Haidt who worry that many college students have interpreted the right to safety as involving the guarantee that they will be protected from encountering people whose opinions might offend them. Her argument is that, compared with earlier generations, iGen-ers have learned to “play it safe”—staying at home instead of going out, waiting longer to get their drivers’ license, and, in some cases, putting off or even avoiding the party scene. At the same time, they have grown accustomed to avoiding encounters with people whose views are different from their own, since that might lead to hurt feelings or emotional discomfort. Put differently, Twenge believes that the desire for safety among iGen-ers has expanded beyond physical safety (access to which has indeed improved in a number of ways) to include a desire for “emotional safety” understood as freedom from having to come into contact with people who disagree with me. After all, this is a generation that has noticeably less experience (compared with Gen-X’ers and Boomers) navigating the messiness of real face-to-face encounters. Live social interaction can be difficult and scary for them, the more so when it involves people with whom they disagree.

As I mentioned above, I had a strongly positive reaction to Twenge’s book. In fact, I had the distinct impression at times that I was reading a work by a sociologist, rather than a psychologist. Not that psychologists can’t be brilliant (or sociologists dull and naïve)—many are. But it is profoundly refreshing to read work by a psychologist who excels at making the link between broader cultural and social changes, and the “choices” made by individuals who inhabit those cultural and social spaces.

Of course, the cultural changes ushered in largely by the spread of a technology do not just impact “choices” made. They impact the reality that we, and especially iGen-ers, live in and must deal with. My son Nico does not yet have a phone, but since most of his bus-riding peers do, he will be increasingly “left alone” if not “left out” by his generation the longer he goes without one. And this leads to the agonizing decision that will be made by many Gen-X parents like me—when will we have to buy the kids a phone? One more reason to think carefully and strategically about the social circles that envelope your kids. They matter now more than ever.

I first met Bob Brenneman in 1996 when he was serving with Mennonite Central Committee in Guatemala. Our friendship and conversations—theological, sociological, and personal—have continued and deepened over the years. A detective could find many of his “fingerprints” on my Discipleship and Ethics course, including, but not limited to: conversation with him about the first version of the course led to changes in the syllabus, I borrowed the one-day tech fast assignment from him, he pointed me to the material I use on inequality, and in recent years his book, Homies and Hermanos, is a text in the class. I am very pleased he agreed to write this blog for the website. Check out more of his blogs at: www.homiesandhermanosbook.wordpress.com


Posted on February 15, 2018 .