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.”
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….
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…