Film and Book Reviews

Smartphones fostering anxiety, fragility in 'iGens'

BookiGen: 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, by Jean M. Twenge (Atria Books, 2017)

By Peter Corney

May 7 2019 

This is one of the most fascinating and disturbing pieces of social research on the group of young people born after 1995 I have read for a long time. It is a must-read for anyone involved in contemporary ministry, education, provision of mental health or the employment of young people today.

While based on US research, the trends revealed are very similar to those now emerging in Australia. One of the strengths of the research is that its comparisons are based on data from similar cohorts going back over several generations. The Americans have been keeping stats on high school and college students for a long time.

The book describes the “iGen” cohort as “born after 1995. 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 is a Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University and author of a number of books based on her social research. She says: “Around 2012 I started seeing large, abrupt shifts in teens’ behaviours and emotional states. All of a sudden the line graphs looked like steep mountains … in all my analysis of generational data – some of it reaching back to the 1930s – I had never seen anything like it.”

The sharp changes in the line graphs she observed on a range of social habits and attitudes all coincide with the ubiquitous adoption of smartphones and social media in 2010-11 by “iGen”.

No one of my age who has lived through the post-World War II changes in technology and their social impact, like the general affordability and adoption of the family car, TV and modern domestic appliances, can be unaware of the massive impact new technology can have. But the depth and extent of the influence of the internet, new digital technology, and the mobile phone is startling. Twenge’s book is a disturbing study of the huge impact of the smartphone and social media on the emerging generation.

Of course technology is not the only contributing factor. Significant changes in parenting styles have also had a big impact. Boomer parents had a more permissive style whereas parenting of iGens has been described as “helicopter parenting”. For example, these parents’ obsession with safety has transferred a fear of risk to their children. Childhood and adolescence have been lengthened and adult responsibility delayed, leaving them with poor levels of resilience to cope with the inevitable failures and difficulties of life.

Twenge asked her undergraduate students: “What do you do with your phone while you sleep? Their answers were a profile in obsession. Nearly all slept with their phones, putting them under their pillows, on the mattress, or at the very least within arm’s reach of the bed. Their phone was the last thing they saw before they went to sleep and the first thing they saw when they woke up.”

The new reality of iGens’ social life is “it’s conducted online, for all to see, with clear messages about who’s in and who’s out”. The abuse of social media by young people, for example cyber bullying, has multiplied their typical adolescent fears of rejection and lack of social acceptance.

The Australian psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, who specialises in the mental health of young people, describes them as fragile and lacking in resilience, with one in four suffering with some form of emotional ill health. Many of our secondary schools have had to add special programs and staff to cope with the avalanche of problems created by these social pressures.

Twenge illustrates all this by her research into their levels of maturity, attitudes to study, academic scores, mental health, security (risk averse), social relationships and interaction. Their more conservative attitudes to sex and dating, alcohol and drugs and personal security are all explored. Their religious affiliation has declined and their politics has become more individualistic. The influence of family traditions on their politics and religion is declining.

On the positive side, they are more tolerant of diversity and more inclusive, particularly on race and gender issues for which they have a high sensitivity and intolerance of any hint of discrimination. They are also anxious about their future job prospects and income levels. In fact, if you want a key word to describe them it’s anxiety. It is a fascinating picture of generational change.

Twenge has a “Conclusion” section entitled “Understanding – and Saving – iGen”. It has 23 pages of very helpful and practical ideas for how parents, teachers and youth workers can help iGens to overcome some of the problems they are confronting – especially how to constructively manage the smartphone and social media.

The Revd Peter Corney OAM is former Vicar of St Hilary’s Kew. He thanks the Revd Mark Juers, Assistant Minister at St Hilary’s, who is a lot closer than he is to the iGen age, for his insights!