Two years ago, the headline in the Washington Post about researcher Jean Twenge’s work was, “Happiness levels are rising for teens, but not for people older than 30,” and she was quoted as saying, “our current culture is giving teens what they need, but not mature adults what they need.”
I’m confused – because the headline in the latest Atlantic Monthly about Dr. Twenge’s work suggests the opposite. It reads, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” and she writes in the article that the devices are “making them seriously unhappy…. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.” So her thinking about today’s teens has done a complete 180 in two years. [The latter article is actually an excerpt from her new book about teens, iGen, which has a very long subtitle (28 words), and I guess updates us on what she wrote about the teens of the last decade, Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic.]
So because Twenge’s sweeping, negative statements about an entire generation (kids born between 1995 and 2012) have gotten a lot of pickup in the news media this week, I thought a little balance might be good. Here, all in one blog post, are responses from six other researchers – well-known scholars in the youth and digital media space – this past week:
- Christopher Ferguson, PhD, psychology professor and researcher, Stetson University, in an email (published here with his permission): “It’s clickbait, pure and simple, with all the value clickbait usually has. Jean Twenge has made a career out of generational alarmism. Her comments about time spent online are incorrect. Time spent online is a poor predictor of mental health functioning. Problems come when some individuals use social media to negatively compare themselves to others. For people who engage in authentic self-presentation, time spent online is associated with improved mental health. It’s interesting how poor people are at avoiding patterns of media alarmism. The unfortunate thing is, this will slow real careful examination of causes of increasing suicide rates.”
- Sonia Livingstone, PhD, psychology professor, the London School of Economics, on Twitter: “Lots of interesting data here but too little analysis of multiple factors underlying social change.”
- Amanda Lenhart, PhD, Senior Research Scientist, The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, in response to Livingstone on Twitter: “I’d go further & suggest that the author is cherry picking findings to support a career focused on a generally negative view of youth.”
- Vicky Rideout, researcher and principal at VJR Consulting, in the Parenting for a Digital Future research blog: “The [Atlantic Monthly] piece has already generated a lot of dialogue…. It’s easy to pick on an article with an alarmist headline like that; but it’s not just the title at issue in this case…. Twenge writes that surveys have shown correlations between high smartphone and social media use and increased likelihood of suicide or depression. But correlations like that – while intriguing, important and worthy of further study – are certainly far from indicating a causal link, or which direction causality might flow…. It is in fact entirely possible that unhappy teens choose to spend more time with screen media than their peers do, rather than that heavy screen media use is causing unhappiness. Indeed, it is possible that some forms of screen media use help teens who suffer from depression, connecting them to family, friends, and resources.
- Sarah Rose Cavanagh, PhD, writer, researcher and professor at Assumption College, in Medium.com: “No, Smartphones Are Not Destroying a Generation” reads her headline, and she writes that “the problem with both [Twenge’s] article and the resulting attention is three-fold: 1) the data the author chooses to present are cherry-picked…. 2) the studies she reviews are all correlational…. 3) the studies she reviews largely ignore social contexts and how people differ.”
Giving parents something to work with
And my favorite counter-commentary (because it packs into one article another interpretation of the actual data Twenge interpreted, a unique view of what the real problem is and the best digital parenting advice I’ve seen yet:
Alexandra Samuel, PhD, writer, researcher and speaker, in JSTOR DailyThat alternative interpretation of Twenge’s data set is summed up right in Samuel’s headline too, which rings much truer to this follower of 15 years’ research: “Yes, Smartphones Are Destroying a Generation, But Not of Kids.” It’s the impact they had on parents, she proposes.