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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 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.”
  • 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 there “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 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.

“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 at 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). She 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.”
  • “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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