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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Book review: Jean Twenge’s latest spotlights dangers of being a part of the smartphone generation 

Jean Twenge’s study of the smartphone generation and her prediction of a mental health apocalypse belittles the real lives of youngsters today

The iGeneration is immersed in the internet, not real life, according to pyschology professor Jean Twenge. Getty Images
The iGeneration is immersed in the internet, not real life, according to pyschology professor Jean Twenge. Getty Images

For the past century or so, there has been no shortage of books written by degree-holding adults fond of starting sentences with “Today’s teens seem to be ...”

Precious little good – either in the form of understanding the present or predicting the future – has ever come of such books, but San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge, author of previous books with titles like The Narcissism Epidemic and Generation Me, is undeterred; her new book iGen comes with an engorged subtitle that tips virtually every card she’s holding: “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.”

Even there, before stepping inside the book, there’s a lot to unpack. First the “why”, which asks what courtroom lawyers would call a leading question. Not are todays’ super-connected kids growing up less rebellious, but why are they doing so, with the author baking her conclusions into her own investigation.

Then that “kids”, carrying with it a slight but nonetheless detectable whiff of condescension – how many of these life-loving American teens Twenge interviewed would be happy being referred to as “kids”?

Very likely none of them, and some of them would have a good point.

Then there’s that scare-claim about how these super-connected kids are growing up “completely unprepared for adulthood”, when neither Twenge nor anybody else can know what shape that adulthood will take, what its world will be like, and therefore what constitutes good preparation.

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Twenge’s generation, after all, would have said that any “kids” who were spending their time learning computer code (instead of, for instance, enlisting for Desert Storm) were growing up “completely unprepared for adulthood”.

And finally there’s the subtitle’s parting shot, “what that means for the rest of us” – which unambiguously sets up an us-vs-them split: clearly, none of the young people about whom Twenge is theorising is expected to read her book, and just as clearly, she intends “the rest of us” who are her readers to take a dim view of her findings, perhaps to imagine themselves in feeble old age, being neglected by the vacuous screen-zombies all these “kids” have become.

The title of Twenge’s much-discussed Atlantic article, adapted from her book, makes things every bit as explicit: “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” On the positive, at least it’s an open-ended question. On the negative, well, there’s the Apocalypse.

The book is organised around a discreet handful of concentrations like internet usage, social isolation, delayed maturity, inclusivity, and the author’s sledgehammer, mental health.

Twenge surveys a range of studies conducted on what she refers to as “iGen”, the generation of young Americans born between 1995 and 2012.

Unlike generations before it, this generation has grown up in a world saturated by today’s ubiquitous “smart” technology – cellphones, iPads, and round-the-clock social media destinations like Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat.

According to Twenge’s findings, these technological innovations are creating real and unprecedented social and psychological changes.

The teens she studied spend an average six hours on the internet a day (and if “internet time” is defined the way it should be, as “time – of any duration – paying attention to a device that’s connected to the internet” – then that number probably increases, perhaps doubles), get their driver’s licenses later, have their experiences later, and rebel against their parents’ authority later, if at all. The subjects interact with their peers far less than the previous generation did, and they seem to prefer it that way, relegating to texts and “Snapstreams” all the kinds of intimate confessions and personal conversations that once happened during sleepovers and on playgrounds.

These “iGen” teens are high-tech voyeurs of the world around them, dramatically less interested than their elders in all the things that were once barometers of social engagement: finding good jobs, adhering to a religious faith, raising families, believing in political ideologies.

And the strong impression conveyed by iGen is that the positives of this strange new world view are heavily outweighed by the negatives.

Yes, these teens are indulging in fewer of the self-destructive behaviours of earlier generations – teen pregnancy, teen drug abuse, even teen prejudices are all in general decline – but Twenge’s research also hints these same teens are maturing more slowly, retaining some of the characteristics of childhood far longer than even their immediate predecessors, the Millennials.

“Only growing up more slowly explains why working, driving, staying alone, and managing one’s own money would also decline among teens,” readers are told. “Neither ‘better behaved’ nor ‘boring’ captures what’s really going on with iGen: they are simply taking longer to grow up.”

Twenge is quick to point out that generational studies are necessarily imprecise, and she’s as aware as anybody of the perils of prophecy.

And yet at the heart of her book is a prophecy of sweeping implications: that iGen is on the brink of “the most severe mental health crisis for young people in decades”.

Like all the rest of iGen, this contention is buttressed with copious references and charts, all showing that the percentage of young people who feel lonely or unfulfilled has skyrocketed in the past 10 years.

“Given the timing,” Twenge writes, “smartphones are the most likely culprits, increasing loneliness both directly and indirectly by replacing in-person social interaction.”

It all combines to create a smotheringly dark picture, until you take a deep breath and actually spend some time with teenage members of iGen.

They doubt and worry, yes, as every generation has since the dawn of the species, but they also laugh and clown around, and they assess and multi-task with a speed and casual efficiency their grandparents only saw in air traffic controllers and New York City switchboard operators.

“iGen’ers are addicted to their phones, and they know it,” Twenge writes, without appearing to credit the sheer amount of hope the second part of the sentence lends to the first.

Even Twenge’s own charts and numbers, read with optimism, tend to indicate that members of iGen are generally far more socially aware, far less given to prejudice, and far, far sharper than their parents.

Twenge starts far too many sentences with some variation of “Maybe I’m just a GenX’er, but ...” and there’s no ‘maybe’ about it: she is a member of GenX, a generation considered by its Baby Boomer parents to be every bit the feral, clueless space aliens that Twenge describes iGen as being.

That earlier worry was in good measure mistaken (as GenX writers, scientists, and teachers prove every year), and there’s a good chance Twenge’s worries about iGen are equally mistaken.

That generation will be handed a wrecked mess of a world; it’s entirely possible to hope they’ll be up to the task of saving it.