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Our Children and Smartphones

Gaelle Marcel

Over the years I've laid down more than a few pixels about the importance of a college education, and the merits of a 529 educational savings plan as a way of funding it. But saving for a collage education is all for naught if one's child is not emotionally or socially prepared for it when they leave high school and the house. Earlier this month, Jean Twenge wrote an alarming article in The Atlantic, which discusses the seriously harmful psychological effect that smartphones and tablets are having on today's youth — which she calls the iGen.

I’ve been researching generational differences for 25 years, starting when I was a 22-year-old doctoral student in psychology. Typically, the characteristics that come to define a generation appear gradually, and along a continuum. Beliefs and behaviors that were already rising simply continue to do so. I had grown accustomed to line graphs of trends that looked like modest hills and valleys. [...]

Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs, and many of the distinctive characteristics of the Millennial generation began to disappear. In all my analyses of generational data—some reaching back to the 1930s—I had never seen anything like it [see a few of Ms. Twenge's line graphs at the end of this blog].

At first I presumed these might be blips, but the trends persisted, across several years and a series of national surveys. The changes weren’t just in degree, but in kind. The biggest difference between the Millennials and their predecessors was in how they viewed the world; teens today differ from the Millennials not just in their views but in how they spend their time. The experiences they have every day are radically different from those of the generation that came of age just a few years before them.

What happened in 2012 to cause such dramatic shifts in behavior? It was after the Great Recession, which officially lasted from 2007 to 2009 and had a starker effect on Millennials trying to find a place in a sputtering economy. But it was exactly the moment when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent. [...]

The advent of the smartphone and its cousin the tablet was followed quickly by hand-wringing about the deleterious effects of “screen time.” But the impact of these devices has not been fully appreciated, and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans. The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone. [...]

But the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.

I appreciate the irony of posting this on my blog, which many will read on their smartphone or tablet. As a techophile parent of two iGen boys, I personally struggle with moderating my use of these devices, particularly in the presence of my boys and other people in general. I realize that I have been a poor role model for my boys at times, and I also worry that the harmful effects of overusing these devices probably affects adults in similar ways as they affect children. So I encourage you to read Ms. Twenge's article in full, and to join me in trying to be a more responsible and measured user of social media and these devices in general. Do it for your kids. Do it for the people around you. Do it for yourself.