The Alcove

Are the Kids All Right?

Jean Twenge’s analysis of today’s teens is alarming, trenchant, incomplete, and part of a long tradition of hand-wringing about “the youth.”

By Gabriel Ferrante

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Rejoice, Millennials! We are no longer the only generation subject to scathing critiques in the pages of The Atlantic. The magazine, which five years ago to the month published a feature calling Millennials “The Cheapest Generation,” noting the extent to which changing patterns of consumption by young people were shaking up big business. But now, Millennials have company in the worry of The Atlantic’s editorial board, which now asks “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” Jean Twenge’s piece on what she calls the “iGen,” those born 1995-2012, again exposes some dramatic shifts in consumption by today’s teens. However, this time the shifts are not about how they spend their money, but how they spend their time.

Today, Twenge laments, teens spend less time working, doing homework, hanging out with friends, and sleeping than prior generations did. More of their time is spent on the Internet, specifically, on mobile social networking apps. As a result, they feel more left out and depressed, and even their positive attributes, including lower involvement in crime, still have some sinister implications. “As teens have started spending less time together, they have become less likely to kill each other,” Twenge writes “and more likely to kill themselves.” Their digital connection belies crippling isolation, and a lack of independence that will hurt them later in life. Too few have “the self-confidence born of making your own choices—even if, perhaps especially if, your parents wouldn’t think they were the right ones.”

Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, is hardly a stranger to this kind of clarion call. Her first book, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before, about Millennials, and her most recent one, from which The Atlantic’s piece is excerpted, have a lovely parallelism, right down to their titles. This new one is iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. Given Twenge’s habit of finding all adolescent behaviors wanting compared to those of Gen X (coincidentally, the one of which she is a part), it might be tempting to dismiss her manifesto out of hand. Too often, despite her own disclaimer, she seems to “succumb to nostalgia for the way things used to be.” But ignoring all of Twenge’s research would also be a mistake.

Twenge’s argument is that the massive increase in smartphone market penetration and the concomitant increase in social media use have made modern teenagers less capable of personal interaction and independent decision-making. The anecdotes and data she provides to support this claim are striking. Young people speak about their phones using “the language of addiction.” Screen time does cause more feelings of loneliness, and today’s teens suffer from mental illness at higher rates than many of their predecessors. However, in dropping all the blame at the feet of the personal decisions of young people to stay at home and stare at phones, Twenge ends up pearl clutching about behavior she doesn’t like rather than performing any deeper social analysis. Her students’ relationship with their phones might well strike her as “a profile in obsession,” but that doesn’t mean that their problems spring entirely from a WiFi connection. The fact that “eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-graders in the 2010s actually spend less time on homework than Gen X teens did in the early 1990s” probably has less to do with their cellphones and more to do with a growing recognition among educators that too much time spent on homework is detrimental to learning.

Despite a strong case for some of her claims and her prodigious amount of data, she is prone to hyperbole. There is evidence that abuse of mobile devices reduces happiness; there is none to suggest that “[i]n the next decade, we may see more adults who know just the right emoji for a situation, but not the right facial expression.” Twenge is also resistant to acknowledging structural social shifts that might contribute to the trends she’s documenting just as much as the fact that “the allure of the smartphone is often too much to resist.”

There’s clearly more than one factor at work in Twenge’s data, as even she acknowledges. She spends a great deal of time harping on the fact that American teens are now far more likely to be “nagged into” getting a driver’s license by their parents than to seek it themselves, if they ever get one at all. This fits perfectly into her argument that teens today are acting more like their tween counterparts of yesteryear: “[c]hildhood now stretches long into high school.” But does lack of desire to drive have anything to do with phones? After all, the decline in driving began in 2004, well before the introduction of the iPhone. More importantly, given that, as Twenge also discusses at length, teens are far less likely to have jobs than in the past, their reluctance to seek out a license might not be cultural pathology but rather a reflection of the fact that they don’t have the money to pay for gas.

The Great Recession appears in The Atlantic’s excerpt, but only in passing, despite the fact that today’s teens spent many of their formative years during the second-sharpest economic downturn in modern history. This has consequences. For example, teens might be more likely to consider applying for a job at the local ice cream shop if they had a sibling who worked or works there. Such a peer might also put a good word in for them to help them get the job. In the depths of the recession, and even during the long, slow recovery, stories abounded about college graduates taking jobs in the service sector that younger people might have previously occupied. Once those chains are broken, it might not be easy to re-establish them. Moreover, if employers can find permanent employees willing to work in traditionally adolescent jobs because of job scarcity, they may be making the entirely rational choice to hire adults rather than teenagers, who are less likely to have relevant experience and are frequently only available on a seasonal basis. Moreover, as a different Atlantic article notes, students now take on many more high school internships and summer classes, and attend college more frequently. All of these behaviors take them out of the labor force. In fact, the rate of teenagers not in education, employment, or training has not changed in decades.

Importantly, though, it’s also critical to note that Twenge’s article ignores racial factors entirely. This is more than a touch ridiculous given the racial diversity of the group she is attempting to describe: Close to 50 percent of today’s adolescents are non-white. While demographic shifts certainly did not cause the abrupt changes in Twenge’s data, it’s important to put the economic decisions of today’s youth in aggregate in context. Black and Hispanic teens (especially young men) face continued discrimination that profoundly affects their behavior. This discrimination is not new, but as Black, Hispanic, Asian, and multiracial teens are a far greater percentage of their age cohort than in the past, forces affecting them and their behavior have a far larger effect on aggregate statistics than ever before. Twenge wonders why more young people aren’t hanging out at “[t]he roller rink, the basketball court, the town pool, the local necking spot.” White teens might well still be able to do so without harassment, but young people of color are subject to a shocking amount of police profiling if they attempt to spend time with their friends in public spaces.

None of this is to say that Twenge is completely incorrect. People’s connections with their cellphones are more intimate than with any inanimate object in history, especially for the first generation that does not even remember a time without them. These changes have affected all Americans, regardless of age, and social isolation, which was growing even before their introduction, is a profound social ill and needs to be combated at all age levels. However, in finding immorality (on the part of the teens) and bad parenting (on the part of their overworked parents, who have stagnant wages, just like the rest of America), Twenge is ignoring a thousand other problems that require policy changes to fix, beyond just parents “telling their kids to put down their phone.” The mental health crisis among young people must be addressed in a way that includes encouraging disconnection on occasion, but must also acknowledge the stress of growing up in homes wracked by chronic joblessness and the opioid crisis. It must understand that in a generation much more likely to identify as LGBTQ than any other, the ongoing mental health crisis among LGBTQ people is not a niche issue.

Today’s teens are troubled. So are all teenagers. Luckily, unlike the bygone teens that Twenge cites with an odd wistfulness, they are less likely to self-medicate by abusing tobacco, alcohol, or risky sex. However, by placing the implicit blame for the troubles they do face on individual decisions that include spending too much time on Facebook, Twenge joins a long American tradition, not just of worrying about the kids, but of blaming the unlucky for circumstances beyond their control.

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Gabriel Ferrante is a summer fellow at Democracy.

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