Dr Jean Twenge is worried about the current crop of school-age children. She’s worried about their habits, their mental health and their attitudes. And that’s not just an opinion based on observations – it’s one based on data from millions of young people.
Twenge is professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of more than 140 scientific papers and books. She has been researching generational differences for the past 25 years, using annual surveys of 11 million young people in the US, and she’s discovered that the shift between the previous cohort of young people – the millennials – and the current cohort – whom she calls the “iGen generation” – is the biggest she has studied yet.
“There were some really sudden spikes in depressive symptoms, some sudden changes in how teens were spending their time, as well as some shifts in attitudes around risk and safety,” says Twenge, who details some of these findings in her book iGen: why today’s super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy – and completely unprepared for adulthood.
She believes that one of the factors behind these changes is the ubiquity of the smartphone, and specifically the iPhone, hence the iGen moniker.
“One survey [conducted in 2017] shows that 75 per cent of teens in the US own not just a smartphone, but an iPhone,” she says. So, how does this smartphone obsession impact on young people? One of the most striking differences between the current and former generation of young people is the amount of time dedicated to reading.
“iGen teens spend six to eight hours a day of their leisure time on digital media and that has crowded out the time they spend seeing their friends in person and the time they used to spend with traditional media, including reading books, magazines and newspapers,” says Twenge.
“And it’s not that teens never liked to read, because apparently they did. For example, the percentage who say they read a book or magazine every day among grade 12 students, who are 17 to 18 years old, has declined from 60 per cent in the 1970s to around 16 per cent in recent years, so they have a lot less experience with the printed word.”
That’s not to say that iGen children hardly read at all. It’s just that the nature of how they read has changed radically.
“They read very brief things on news feeds and on social media, but increasingly that’s not even true because social media [channels] like Snapchat and Instagram are now more popular among this group than, say, Facebook or Twitter, so they are really living online with images rather than text,” says Twenge.
'Obsessed with safety'
Another noticeable difference between iGen children and previous generations is that they are obsessed with safety. They are less interested in taking risks and they are taking longer to grow up. Teens are less likely to drive, they’re less likely to have a paid job, to drink alcohol, to go out without their parents, to date and to have sex, says Twenge.
“There are a lot of good things in there, but it’s a trade-off because although they are more carefully protected and not growing up before they are ready, it also means they have less experience of making their own decisions and less experience of independence.”
Twenge says teachers have told her that because of this new kind of upbringing, they have a hard time getting students to work independently, to make their own decisions and even to do a task without receiving step-by-step instructions.
“It’s really good that we have teenagers who are more interested in safety, but if it keeps them from taking intellectual risks or from talking to people who they might disagree with, there are some potential downsides,” she says.
To address this risk-aversion among members of iGen, Twenge suggests that teachers coach students in how to resolve conflicts face-to-face.
“[Students] could be given specific advice about how to do this – for example, use ‘I’ statements instead of ‘you’ statements – and then role-play these in the classroom, or case studies where people overcame things that scared them,” she explains. “Teachers could also share research on how phobias are treated – through exposure. In other words, the best way to stop being afraid of something is to do it.”
She also thinks that group working would benefit iGen-ers not only to tackle their need for instruction but also issues around the lack of socialisation caused by smartphones.
“Teachers should start out slowly with this, but over the course of a semester with a class you can really help them to develop the skill of working with others in a group and being able to do a task without having all the instructions laid out step-by-step,” she says. “This will help to build their ability to make decisions.”
As for tackling the deterioration of reading habits, Twenge recommends that teachers slowly start to get students used to reading longer texts. “This is tough and teachers don’t always have control over the curriculum, but they could try starting students out with things that are shorter and more relevant to their lives and then work up to longer form texts.”
Considering that she places much of the blame for the problems of the iGen on smartphones, does she think tech should have a place in schools?
“I think smartphones should be banned during lunchtime – this should be a time for students to interact with each other face-to-face,” responds Twenge. “Several high-school students told me they wanted to talk to their friends at lunch but couldn’t because their friends were on their phones. In the classroom, phones should be allowed only if they are part of the lesson plan.”
Admittedly, Twenge’s research is based solely on surveys of young people in the US, and she says that she is unable to confirm whether these same cultural and behavioural changes in members of iGen are occurring across the globe. But she believes it is likely that UK children will be similar. “My best guess is these trends might show up anywhere that smartphones gained market saturation around the same time, but there is also the potential for other cultural influences, so it is difficult to generalise,” she says.
Certainly, students in the UK are as smartphone-obsessed as their US counterparts and many of the traits Twenge has found will be familiar to teachers here.
She says it is crucial that we do not dismiss this generation but try and understand them, as pretty soon they will be calling the shots.
“Friends and family need to look out for them; businesses must figure out how to recruit them and sell to them; colleges and universities must know how to educate and guide them,” she writes in her book.
“And members of iGen also need to understand themselves as they communicate with their elders and explain their views to their older peers. Because where iGen goes, so goes our nation – and the world.”
Simon Creasey is a freelance journalist based in Kent. He tweets @simoncreasey2