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The generation-destroying smartphone: Researchers push back

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.”

Teen crowd shot

A whole generation? Really?! (cc licensed)

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 (“iGen,” or 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 seven 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.”
  • Katie Davis, PhD, at University of Washington and Emily Weinstein, EdD, and Howard Gardner, PhD, at Harvard University “take issue with Twenge’s narrative” in Medium, offering their “three main problems with it”: 1) “Twenge uses correlational data to make causal claims…. 2) Despite saying ‘no single factor ever defines a generation,’ Twenge spends all but a couple of throwaway sentences using a single factor to define iGen…. 3) Just as digital media is unlikely to be the sole cause of teens’ attitudes and behaviors, it’s also unlikely to have a singular, uniform impact on all teens.”

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:

JSTOR logo

Alexandra Samuel, PhD, writer, researcher and speaker, in JSTOR Daily. That 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….

“Fellow parents, it’s time for us to consider another possible explanation for why our kids are increasingly disengaged. It’s because we’ve disengaged ourselves; we’re too busy looking down at our screens to look up at our kids. I know: it’s how I live myself,” wrote the researcher and parent. That’s just a hint of her equally plausible explanation for declines in teen happiness, and I’m not going to steal her thunder (click here to read it). But a thoughtful piece on teens’ own view of the situation in The Guardian last spring resonates with her view, citing this suggestion from 17-year-old Maelo Manning, 7 years into her blogging about politics: “I’d say that loneliness is caused by parents who don’t take an interest in their kids.”

But the best part of all this is really the great digital parenting advice – very much in sync with that of EU Kids Online researchers in 32 countries (see the 32 2-min. videos starting on page 21 of this amazing resource). Samuel suggests that parents reject both laissez faire and restrictive approaches and instead be “digital mentors, actively encouraging our kids to use technology, but offering ongoing support and guidance in how to use it appropriately.”

Related links

  • A MUCH more useful Atlantic Monthly article than this month’s was one by Alexandra Samuel: “Parents: Reject Technology Shame.” In her research, Samuel found 3 categories of parents where tech parenting was concerned: enablers, limiters and mentors. Of these, it was the “children of limiters who are most likely to engage in problematic behavior: They’re twice as likely as the children of mentors to access porn, or to post rude or hostile comments online; they’re also three times as likely to go online and impersonate a classmate, peer, or adult. Shielding kids from the Internet may work for a time, but once they do get online, limiters’ kids often lack the skills and habits that make for consistent, safe, and successful online interactions.”
  • More time on social media is not linked to poor mental health,” a study published in the November 2017 issue of Psychiatric Quarterly, “found very few links between different aspects of social media use among young adults and possible mental health problems such as loneliness, decreased empathy and social anxiety” and concluded “how people use social media is more important than the time they spend doing so.”
  • “Teenagers on loneliness: ‘We want to talk to our parents. We need their guidance'” in The Guardian last April
  • In “Don’t Take Away Your Teen’s Phone” at Slate.com, Lisa Guernsey, author, education policy director at the think tank New America, and parent of teen girls asks a question I’ve long had about growing awareness of depression, suicide and social aggression and their impact on what survey respondents report: “Dinner conversations and car rides will often touch on our loved ones’ mental health, anxieties, and needs to find spaces for reflection—conversations unlike anything I recall from my teen years of the ’80s and ’90s. Across our society we see a dawning awareness of depression—from suicide prevention walks to a lack of stigma about seeing a therapist to an increasing sophistication among professionals about how to evaluate symptoms. Could that awareness itself be affecting identification of depression? Could it be affecting our teens in unintended ways?”
  • NPR was a little more measured in its headline – “How smartphones are making kids unhappy” – for an interview with Twenge
  • Another eminent researcher in this space, David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, wrote in the Journal of Child Psychology in 2014 about the three alarmist assumptions about youth safety online. In a 2010 talk about “juvenoia,” as he called it, Dr. Finkelhor cited similar sweeping generalizations about youth on the part of Aristophanes around 400 B.C., a prominent crusader of the 11th century and many Americans during the comic book scare of the 1950s (see Slate), which was before the Dungeons and Dragons panic of the ’80s (see the New York Times) and the social media panic of the last decade (see a 2009 post of mine). Hmm, is there a pattern here?
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  1. Just a note that in many ways I’m agreement with your reading. Twenge’s alarm needs to be weighed against all the sociologists (like Tufecki, Fischer, and Klinenberg) who claim that we’re “still connected.” (cf. http://itintheuniversity.blogspot.com/2012/04/is-facebook-making-us-homesick.html ). Still an ounce of caution is in order as Adam Gopnick counsels:

    “…. the Ever Wasers smile condescendingly at the Better-Nevers and say, “Of course, some new machine is always ruining everything. We’ve all been here before.” But the Better-Nevers can say, in return, “What if the Internet is actually doing it?” The hypochondriac frets about this bump or that suspicious freckle and we laugh—but sooner or later one small bump, one jagged-edge freckle, will be the thing for certain. Worlds really do decline. “Oh, they always say that about the barbarians, but every generation has its barbarians, and every generation assimilates them,” one Roman reassured another when the Vandals were at the gates, and next thing you knew there wasn’t a hot bath or a good book for another thousand years.” (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/02/14/the-information)

    September 12, 2017
    • Anne #

      Thanks for these great links. Haven’t been able to read them both yet but can’t wait. One question, meantime: Is there something besides “Ever Wasers” and “Better-Nevers”? Trying to figure out my home category. ;)

      September 12, 2017
  2. Pace the critics above, Twenge in iGen does cite studies that support causal connections between increased screen time and decreased quality of life. It’s not just correlations. Those cites are on page 78 and 79 of her book. The formal studies are mostly behind paywalls but lay summaries are available. Here’s one:

    https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/928487_680fc12644c8428eb728cde7d61b13e7.pdf

    and here’s a formal study by the eminent scholar Christakis:

    https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/78aa/46a7d47e58d94c36e46e82dac7c7bfaae8f9.pdf

    One might think, as Finkelhor argues above that it’s all moral panic and the perennial skepticism of older generations toward younger ones. But Twenge’s data, which is culled from publically available surveys that have been administered to the young for the last couple of decades indicate significant spikes upward in depression and loneliness (see page 97). That data might bear greater scrutiny but to simply dismiss it as moral panic seems a bit flip and disingenuous.

    September 10, 2017
    • Anne #

      Thank you for sharing those two studies, Luke. A thought about them in a second. First and most important, Dr. Finkelhor isn’t one of the researchers I mention in the body of my post and so doesn’t have any arguments at all about Dr. Twenge’s book there; I just point to a couple of his past papers in “Related links,” and my only use of the word “panic” was in reference to the Dungeons & Dragons one of the ’80s, as documented by the New York Times. He did call out several “alarmist assumptions” that he and many of us who followed the research and policy developments around youth and digital media through the late ’90s and 2000s watched develop, and he proposed some counter-hypotheses for us to consider, such as the problems that show up in digital environments are “extensions of social interactions or media consumption problems that cut across environments” and are better understood in the context of a child’s life as a whole. As for panics, it’s pretty well documented that all through history (of Western civ, at least), moral panics have developed around the introduction of new media and technology (I’ve never mentioned 18th-century fears of “reading addiction” in this blog).

      The Happiness Research Institute presentation seems to refer to Facebook as a single undifferentiated activity, which I think is problematic. It’s difficult to generalize about the impact of “Facebook” as a whole on all its users or even by a single generation of them. Please see this post elaborating on that.

      That the 2nd study you pointed to was both longitudinal and used several data sets makes it a significant contribution to the literature, but the authors have a lot of qualifiers, such as, “Our models cannot identify the mechanisms by which Facebook use may lead to reduced well-being.” I do think we (everybody) have a lot to learn about the impact of our new media and mobile technology, not to mention VR and AI to come, and we need lots of research like this. But I also feel we can’t let our fears determine the hypotheses we work from. The very rigorous EU Kids Online researchers made this point 4 years ago when they wrote that adult fears had set the research and public policy agendas (see this).

      September 12, 2017
  3. Great article (again) Anne. Very useful in our discussions with parents, especially.

    August 13, 2017

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