Book Review:
'Gobsmacked' by author's analysis

iGen: Why Today's Super-connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less happy - and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood 

Jean Twenge, 2017

I cannot remember the last time I was gobsmacked by a book of sociological analysis to the extent I was affected by "iGen: Why Today's Super-connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less happy - and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood by Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University. This remarkable book was published in 2017, about a decade after use of smartphones became a near universal feature of American society.  iGen is about the psychological and social damage to youth resulting from this technology in its first decade of use, damage that transcends social class and racial/ ethnic differences. Twenge's book is also about generational change among children born between 1995-2012 (74 million Americans). Twenge compares dramatic changes in social attitudes and adolescent behavior of the iGen generation compared to Boomers, Generation X and Millennial's.

 

Twenge's book contains a large amount of survey evidence; parts of it read like a mild rant (with reason),  but for the most part it's a scholarly analysis of generational changes in American culture, and of the causal connections between large changes in beliefs, values and social behavior following the widespread use of smartphones. Twenge acknowledges the danger of generalizing about entire generations as if all members of a generation feel, think and act alike; yet she frequently makes statements describing a generation of young people that can only be credible with this caveat: "compared to Boomers, Generation x and Millennial's," iGen'ers:   

 

  • Grow up more slowly based on common indicators of independent functioning such as engaging in activities outside the home without parental supervision.

  • Less likely to 'hang out' with friends outside the home..

  • Less likely to date. 

  • Less likely to have sex by the 12th grade. 

  • Less likely to drive in high school.

  • Less likely to work in high school. 

  • Less likely to go to a movie theatre.

  • Less likely to read for pleasure.

  • Spend less time on homework, volunteering and extracurricular activities.

  • Less likely to use or misuse alcohol, including engaging in binge drinking.

  • Smoke more marijuana than Millennial's. 

  • Marry later; the average age of marriage for women has increased from 20 in the 1970's to 27 currently. 

 

Twenge opines: "The entire developmental trajectory from childhood to adolescence to adulthood has slowed. ... Adolescence is now an extension of childhood rather than the beginning of adulthood." Why have these changes in maturation occurred? In part, because iGen'ers and their parents place a huge emphasis on safety first, including emotional safety (see below), because more parents are attempting to create the conditions of perfect childhood in which all of children's needs and wants are met within the family, and because of new technology: the smartphone. "The average teen checks her phone eighty times a day," and spends six hours a day on their phone outside of school texting, on social media or watching TV shows or movies, Twenge states.  

    

Twenge asserts that many teens sleep with their phones, a practice that has led to beds catching fire on a few occasions. According to Twenge, their cell phone is the last thing most teens check before going to sleep and the first thing they check after waking up. In effect, smartphones are serving as social brains which youth must be plugged into constantly, lest they suffer social brain death! Twenge comments: "Some saw their phones as lifeline or as an extension of their bodies, like a lover." (p. 50) Twenge found that high school seniors spent an average of 2 1/4  hours per day texting, about 2 hours a day on the Internet, 1 1/2 hours a day on electronic gaming and about half an hour on video chat, 6 hours per day of leisure time.  

 

Some readers may ask the question, "so what if adolescents and young have found different ways of socializing than their parents or other generations?"  And, "If it works for them, what's the problem?" Twenge argues that "iGen is on the verge of the most severe mental health crisis for children in decades." (p 93)  She writes: "From the 1980s to the 2000s, progressively more teens said they were satisfied (with their lives).Then when the first iGener's became high school seniors in 2011 and 2013, satisfaction suddenly plummeted, reaching an all time low in 2015."

 

Obsessive use of smartphones and increase in screen time has led to increased loneliness, increased online bullying (especially for adolescent girls), an increase in feelings of social exclusion, and large increases in anxiety, depression and suicide among American youth. Twenge asserts: "The sudden sharp rise in depressive symptoms occurred at almost exactly the same time that smartphones became ubiquitous and in person interaction plummeted." (p.104)  Twenge believes the relationship between and among the increase in time spent using smartphones, less in- person contact with friends and rates of depression is causal, not merely a strong association. She writes: "...56% more teens experienced a major depressive episode in 2015 than in 2010 .. and 60% more experienced severe impairment." (p. 108) One in nine teens and one in eleven young adults experience major depression; "this is not a small issue," ( p. 108) Twenge asserts. Further, "the increase in major depressive episodes is much greater among girls."  Twenge states: ""Forty six percent more 15-19 year-olds committed suicide in 2015 than in 2007"  and ... "three times as many 12-14 year old girls killed themselves in 2015 than in 2007." ( p. 110) Twenge is not exaggerating when she refers to a mental health crisis among youth and young adults.

 

The fragility of iGens

 

Some of the most surprising information in this book concerns indicators of emotional fragility among iGens and the consequences of that fragility, re which many of Twenge's young informants were acutely aware: 

 

  • Compared to the generations that preceded them, iGens are cautious and wary of romantic intimacy during high school and college. They have "an exceedingly cautious attitude toward relationships" which are widely viewed as "smothering" and a source of headaches and unwelcome stress. Twenge opines that the fear of intimacy "is one reason why hookups nearly always occur when both parties are drunk." and "alcohol is considered nearly mandatory before having sex with someone for the first time."  because '"alcohol allows students to pretend that sex doesn't mean anything - after all you were both drunk." ( p. 216) Furthermore, an increased percentage of young people are abstaining from sexual activity altogether. 

  • Guidelines for avoiding intimacy after sex: "Don't cuddle,'' "do not go in for the hugs and snuggles," create a barrier of pillows between you and your sexual partner if necessary.  "Hey, desperate times call for desperate measures," one young informant states.  According to one young person, the worst thing you can be called on campus is "desperate;"  being clingy is considered sad and pathetic. 

  • iGen's definition of safety includes emotional safety from exposure to opinions one finds hurtful or repugnant. Twenge writes: " ... the term 'safe space' has broadened to include protecting anyone from any viewpoint that might offend them"  (p. 154). she asserts that "course readings must be sanitized to remove anything that might offend anyone." Further, "Emotional discomfort is (now) regarded as equivalent to material injury." (p. 156)

  •  According to Twenge, a surprising iGen view is that "the world in an inherently dangerous place because every social interaction carries the risk of being hurt. You never know what someone is going to say and there's no way to protect yourself from it."  Words feel harmful so "no on should ever say anything that makes a student feel bad." (p. 157)

 

As Twenge describes them,  iGen'ers have been so protected growing up that many young people lack confidence in their capacity to cope with hard challenges, and they lack an appetite for risk. It's 'safety first' in all domains except the smartphone. . They lack the grandiosity and entitlement of Millennial's (see the satirical HBO series Search Party). They value material prosperity and expect to be economically well off, but not necessarily to like their job, much less commit any potential leisure time to work. They are individualistic, socially tolerant and libertarian in attitudes toward abortion, sexual identity, gender identity and gun rights. They support collective solutions to issues that affect them (such as cost of college and student debt), but not necessarily other liberal causes, with the exception of racial justice. Most iGen'ers, according to Twenge, cannot fathom racist attitudes that have shaped American society forever. However, this is not to say that they are committed to political action or to one political party. 

 

Imaginative freedom of iGens 

 

Twenge does not do justice to one feature of iGens that is a benefit of smartphones and the Internet: the imaginative freedom to quickly access people, locales, subjects, discussions/ debates, media products, art museums, world literature and much more with a few key strokes. Twenge comments that young iGeners spend a lot of time watching silly videos, or eliciting likes/ dislikes for everyday actions, as well as nude videos, opinions, etc. Smartphones have made adolescents more vulnerable to bullying and ostracism and rejection ( 'ghosting"), but it has also opened (at least potentially) the wide world of imagination with its unlimited possibilities. It is surprising that the most protected generation in American history lacks confidence in their ability to become self sufficient adults, and is so incredibly vulnerable and addicted to a technology that makes them so unhappy. Nevertheless, iGens have grown up with an imaginative freedom inconceivable even 25 years ago, and some of they may yet do extraordinary ( and world changing) things with these possibilities.              

-- Dee Wilson

 

deewilson13@aol.com