In The Atlantic: ‘Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?’

dive into phone

Yeah, I know. That sounds like something you’d hear from Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man: “In my day our phones were dumber’n a stump, and we liked it!”

And since I love my iPhone and its big brother my iPad, I was prepared to be dismissive when Ross Douthat recommended the piece on Twitter: I would reject it, and then I would hide it from my wife, who makes a stubborn virtue of only carrying a flip phone.

But it’s actually pretty interesting. And a bit scary.

It’s by a psychologist who has been studying generational differences for 25 years, and who is a bit freaked out by the latest group she’s been investigating: “iGen,” the group born between 1995 and 2012, is more radically different from its elders than anything she’s seen before:

Typically, the characteristics that come to define a generation appear gradually, and along a continuum. Beliefs and behaviors that were already rising simply continue to do so. Millennials, for instance, are a highly individualistic generation, but individualism had been increasing since the Baby Boomers turned on, tuned in, and dropped out. I had grown accustomed to line graphs of trends that looked like modest hills and valleys. Then I began studying Athena’s generation.

Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs, and many of the distinctive characteristics of the Millennial generation began to disappear. In all my analyses of generational data—some reaching back to the 1930s—I had never seen anything like it.

At first I presumed these might be blips, but the trends persisted, across several years and a series of national surveys. The changes weren’t just in degree, but in kind. The biggest difference between the Millennials and their predecessors was in how they viewed the world; teens today differ from the Millennials not just in their views but in how they spend their time. The experiences they have every day are radically different from those of the generation that came of age just a few years before them….

So what was it that caused this shift in 2012? Well, that was the year “when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent.”

How are these kids different? Well, they don’t date or hang out with friends. They don’t drive, and are happy to be taken places — if they go anywhere — by their parents. They don’t drink. They don’t have sex.

So, in some ways, they’re a helicopter parents’ dream. Until you think hard about what they are doing: Lying around in their bedrooms staring at their phones. “I’ve been on my phone more than I’ve been with actual people,” one kid says. “My bed has, like, an imprint of my body.”

Another excerpt:

Some generational changes are positive, some are negative, and many are both. More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party, today’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been. They’re markedly less likely to get into a car accident and, having less of a taste for alcohol than their predecessors, are less susceptible to drinking’s attendant ills.

Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.

Even when a seismic event—a war, a technological leap, a free concert in the mud—plays an outsize role in shaping a group of young people, no single factor ever defines a generation. Parenting styles continue to change, as do school curricula and culture, and these things matter. But the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy….

Anyway, it’s a long piece, but I recommend you read it.

When I was young, we imagined that future technology — flying cars, starships — would help us dominate the physical universe around us. We didn’t think about it changing our brains, and causing us to turn inward, away from that physical universe.

I see how my own brain has been altered by these devices. I don’t have to remember anything anymore. I don’t have to wonder about anything any more. As quickly as I can say, “I wonder…,” I’m already looking it up. I’ve come to take for granted the fact that I can reach out to anyone and everyone on the planet and express my thoughts, instantaneously. That’s perhaps even more remarkable to me, as someone who did that for a living with older forms, than it is to you. And of course it plays to the kinds of activity that my mind gets off on.

But I’ve known other modes of being. And I shudder a bit to think what it must be like to know no other reality…

42 thoughts on “In The Atlantic: ‘Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?’

  1. bud

    Replace iPhone with radio, television and PC in 1935, 1965 and 1995 and the article could apply to the WW2, boomers and millineals respectively. I can visualize my grandfather yelling at my dad to turn off that damn radio, it’ll rot your brain.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      No, Bud. You missed the point.

      She’s been studying generational differences for 25 years, going back to people who grew up in the ’30s — and she’s never seen as dramatic a difference as this. It happened SUDDENLY, in about 2012, and these kids are VERY different — far more different than close cohorts usually are — from millennials and GenXers.

      This is not parents being horrified at kids reading comic books in the 1950s. This is pretty radical.

      I don’t know why you said what you said, seeing as I included all this info in the excerpts…

      1. bud

        I read an article the other day describing how young people were discovering this device that allows you to get 20 or more TV channels absolutely free! Just plug it into the back of your set and without any cotract, special equipment, cables or any bills. And the catch? None. Just a 1 time $20 purchase and your new antenna will do all this.

        The point is this, what goes around comes around. I’m sure there were plenty of studies on the harmful effects of TV, Rock music and skateboards. But we got through it. Gen Z will too. Let’s not obsess over one study. It’s probably a good thing for parents to limit device usage. Any obsession is bad. Besides, as a highway safety guy delayed driving is a really good thing.

        1. Richard

          The problem is that these “kids” are in their late-20’s and early-30’s and still living at home with mom and dad. Many have not yet worked a real job. I’ve got a college graduate, 28 year old nephew who works a job that likely doesn’t require a high school diploma, still lives at home, of the 16 hours he isn’t working he’s probably sitting in his room 14 of them online or on his phone and only comes out to eat. And the thing is he’s not alone, many of his friends are the same. It’s damn near embarrassing but I gave up on the kid years ago after giving him an opportunity to come out here and find a job that he went to school for. Total waste of oxygen.

      2. Becky

        The article doesn’t mention the role helicopter parenting has played in depression/suicide rates. Parents are more likely to protect their children from making the mistakes that build character and confidence. They intervene rather than letting their children learn how to handle their own problems. Ask any teacher or principal how his/her life has changed.

        Adolescence was once a time to try new things while still having parental back-up. Now, children leave for college without the experience needed to cope. Then, we talk about how stressed the children are!

        I do agree that smart phones create a short-cut to communication and don’t make children learn to socialize or to talk with new people. But, I wonder if those same children might be more outgoing if they were made to do more for themselves.

  2. Richard

    I’m so happy I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s. I talk to kids now who have never just driven around with friends, never been to a keg party, etc… Like Brad writes, they’re happy sitting at home staring into their phone. I’ve interviewed some who have absolutely no socializing skills and one who pulled out his cell phone during the interview to check whatever he felt was more important than the interview. Each generation looks at the younger generation and says “we’re doomed”, but I fear this generation may actually pull it off.

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    And I suppose you sort of have to be a member of MY generation to get that musical reference I embedded at the end.

    But that’s what this article make me think of:

    In the year 3535
    Ain’t gonna need to tell the truth, tell no lie
    Everything you think, do and say
    Is in the pill you took today
    In the year 4545
    You ain’t gonna need your teeth, won’t need your eyes
    You won’t find a thing to chew
    Nobody’s gonna look at you
    In the year 5555
    Your arms hangin’ limp at your sides
    Your legs got nothin’ to do
    Some machine’s doin’ that for you

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      A deeply flawed song, of course, as I realized even when it came out when I was in high school.

      The dates were too far apart. Changes such as those could come in a century or two. The millennial leaps don’t work…

  4. bud

    Before we get alarmed by a single study it’s worth noting that the highest suicide rate is among white, middle age men (CDC). However, to Brads point the fastest growing group is middle school girls. So let’s be cautious and learn the right lessons going forward. But let’s not be overly paranoid. That in itself is an obsession.

    1. Richard

      ” it’s worth noting that the highest suicide rate is among white, middle age men (CDC).”

      What demographic makes up the majority in this country… white middle-age men. Now let’s do it by per capita and you’ll likely find 20-year old American Indian males.

  5. Harry Harris

    I want to see a well-developed study about the dopamine effect related to phone devices and constant cell phone conversation as well. I have a strong suspicion that dopamine release levels are at near addiction stage with many people of numerous ages when using the devices. People who crave dopamine highs (most of us, really) have a hard time utilizing self-discipline and benefiting from delayed gratification. It would be, in my view, very worthwhile to see it studied at that level because of the addict-like behavior we’ve witnessed or experienced

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Oh, no doubt.

      When I Tweet something that I think is pretty good — way better than something I’d gotten a lot of reTweets on the previous week — I want people retweeting and favoriting it NOW, not later in the day. And when they don’t respond right away, I get (mildly) irritated.

      Same with blog posts. I want to see a lively conversation start immediately. Even if the item leads eventually to 100 or more comments, I get antsy in the early stages when there are few or none.

      That’s probably part of the reason why I didn’t moderate comments for the first couple of years. It was a rush to see a post draw 100, 200 or even 300 comments. (All-time record: 481 comments, on a post that really wasn’t all that great.) In those days, I would get more comments in a day, easily, than the newspaper got in letters to the editor in a week.

      I wasn’t bothered much by the negative stuff, the trolling, because I was pretty thick-skinned after all those years as an editor. But when I realized that the trolls were running off good people whose comments I valued, I started moderating. And that caused participation to plummet, although readership stayed good.

      Sometimes, wanting that rush of watching the numbers climb, I sort of miss the bad old days before my civility policy…

      1. Claus2

        “Same with blog posts. I want to see a lively conversation start immediately.”

        Tell me about it… but I have to wait until someone approves my comments… then when it is, three more people have likely said what I said before they did.

      2. Claus2

        “Sometimes, wanting that rush of watching the numbers climb, I sort of miss the bad old days before my civility policy…”

        Have you noticed FitsNews isn’t exactly scaring people off with his open forum? I guess he draws a crowd of those less easily offended such as you have here. This is kind of the knitting club of blogs… that and the cat hoarder forum.

      3. Brad Warthen Post author

        By the way, the second highest number of comments ever was 310. I can sort of see why that one was so popular. The headline was, “What’s all this then about immigration?

        I wrote that in 2006 when immigration had just recently become a huge deal in the GOP. A year before that, you hardly heard about the issue. By August 2006, it was HUGE. This was a column I wrote asking the question, What changed? These illegals have been here for DECADES.

        In all those comments, though, I don’t think I got a satisfactory answer. Doug’s was as good as any: He said we’d reached a “tipping point.” OK. But what did the tipping? What precipitated this concern suddenly jumping to the front burner?…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Actually, the headline of that piece was, until just now, “What all this then about immigration?”

          It drew 310 comments, and it’s sat there for 11 years, and none of you thought to tell me I had a big ol’ typo in the headline?

          It’s fixed now, by the way…

              1. Norm Ivey

                Use the Find tool on your browser, and the computer counts for you. “Brad” appears 67 times on this page.

                Well, 68 now.

                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  Which is as it should be!

                  I’m smiling now because I’m remembering something that happened at the end of the “Power Failure” project I led in the early ’90s. Each of the 17 installments was several full pages long (back when newspaper pages were a good deal bigger than they are now) with multiple stories throwing a lot of ideas at people, so for each installment, I would write a short (11-point-something inches) column that would summarize the main points in that installment, and more importantly, explain how it fit in with the rest of the series.

                  I called these little columns “threads,” because they were meant to tie the whole project together. And like any other column, they were accompanied by my picture and name.

                  At the end of the project, we did a reprint of the whole series. And of course the threads appeared along with all the other material.

                  What did not occur to me when we were doing that was that anyone picking up the special section would see that same mug shot of me on page after page after page. Which, once you DID notice it, was pretty ridiculous and bit embarrassing.

                  Anyway, Bud Ferillo, who did some consulting work with us on the second stage of the project — after all the installments ran, we co-sponsored a series of televised public forums across the state — suggested that we have a contest: Challenge readers to “Count the Braddies,” and all those getting the number right would be entered in a drawing for a nice prize.

                  Ha-ha, I said…

  6. bud

    Just got through reading the study. It actually isn’t all that negative. Certainly not dramatically so. First of all the graphs are highly misleading. The vertical axis is squeezed for dramatic effect. Then the actual findings are in many ways positive. Teens are driving later. That is something highway safety advocates have promoted for years. Teen homicide rates are down. Teen pregnancy is 67% below it’s peak:

    “Fewer teens having sex has contributed to what many see as one of the most positive youth trends in recent years: The teen birth rate hit an all-time low in 2016, down 67 percent since its modern peak, in 1991”.

    On the negative side teens are dating less and hanging out with friends less. The only really significant negative finding is that suicide rates, mostly among girls, is up. Still, suicide rates for teen girls is still below most other demographic groups. Perhaps rather than denigrating the iPhone we should celebrate it’s positive effects (if indeed that’s what’s causing these shifts) and figure out what’s at play with the suicide rates.

    1. Scout

      Well if those “positive” effects are the result of kids just not participating in life with other humans because they only know how to engage with an electronic device, I don’t know that that is a positive. We will need them to be able to participate, carry on conversations, listen to other people, follow instructions, etc. – actually interact with other humans using interpersonal skills (which they’ve spent a lot of time not developing) in order to actually become functional contributing members of society one day. Maybe they won’t ever do that if they don’t have these skills (insert a horrified face emoji here). Or maybe all those bad things you are happy are not happening will just be delayed until they are forced to learn how to be functioning humans in the real world.

      1. bud

        Study after study suggest driving later has substantial benefits to highway safety. Young people have to survive first before they can engage in important interpersonal activities. I’m going to reserve a large measure of skepticism about this one set of findings. It just smacks of generational bias that raises its ugly head every time some new form of electronic distraction comes along.

        1. Claus2

          “Young people have to survive first before they can engage in important interpersonal activities.”

          So they don’t get this in grade school? No more playing at recess or birthday parties… and definitely no sleep overs… you want to play, go get your iPad.

          I bet getting sent to your room isn’t even a punishment anymore.

  7. Scout

    I hope you are right, but I am concerned because from a developmental standpoint this is a bigger change than anything in the past. Not developing interpersonal skills through using language with real human beings in an interactive way during the developmental brain windows for these things is something we’ve not experienced before to the degree or on the scale it is happening now.

  8. Delia

    I am someone from the Igen. I am a “lowerclassmen” and part of the reason kids don’t drive is that our parents don’t want us to. My mom is a gen x borderline baby boomer, so I got a little more freedom. I am an only child though which restricts that freedom because a parent might leave 2 7-11 year old kids alone somewhere while they go get something from the car, but not one! But I digress. To get a drivers liscense in my state, you have to do drivers ed at age 14 and a half or older. A permit at 15 or older, provisional liscense at 16 (can’t drive at night or be on phone) standard liscense 16.5. Many drivers ed programs are no longer done during school and schools don’t make a big fuss about it. Parents have to know, and the ones who do tend to wait. My grade has 750 kids (I live in a suburb that has a really great public school system, everyone wants to move here so we have a lot of kids), and around 150 get their liscense on their birthday (I might if I pass the test!), another 300 in junior year, and the rest senior. Another trend I noticed not brought up here is a lack of co-ed groups. Theres maybe 100 kids out of 3000 whos go to “friend group” is coed. Coed being defined as at least 2 of each gender. Theres a larger political chasm too between the millennial types(liberal borderline socialist) and the silent generation types(conservative borderline isolationist). iGens are constantly being split in half and the internet is either our escape or extens of reality. Mist of us welcome the new age of advancement at the cost of our social health and the rest wants to escape but doesn’t have enough people to escape with from the virtual world. Sorry I write way too much. Probably could made my points in half the words (Why do you write like your running out of time! You write day and night). I listen to hamilton too much… Thanks for reading!


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