iGen deconstructed: How the smartphone has shaped our generation


Dr. Twenge answers parents’ questions about her presentation. Photo by Ria Kolli.

Ria Kolli

At her presentation in the MVHS auditorium on Tuesday, November 28, San Diego State University Psychology professor Jean M. Twenge asked a mostly parent-filled audience what generation they were from. People raised their hands when their respective generations were called out, clearly engaged in the presentation. According to MV PTSA Parent Ed co-chair Gail Marzolf, the PTSA wanted to organize engaging presentations on topics relevant to the MVHS community and believed that they could do so when they found out about Twenge’s book, iGen.

Parents gather in the auditorium to watch Dr. Twenge's presentation. Photo by Ria Kolli.
Parents gather in the auditorium to watch Dr. Twenge’s presentation. Photo by Ria Kolli.

“Another MV PTSA board member heard an interview on the radio with Dr. Twenge and thought her new book iGen sounded very interesting and very relevant to today’s teenagers,” Marzolf said. “She gave the me the lead and I contacted Dr. Twenge to see if she was interested in coming to [MVHS].”
A Guide to the GenerationsTwenge defined “iGen” as the generation of people born after 1995 who have spent their entire adolescence in the age of the smartphone. In both her book and presentation, she asserts that the increased accessibility of smartphones has shaped the culture and experiences shared by many teenagers today. According to Twenge, iGen teenagers differ from those of previous generations in the the speed in which they mature, the way that they spend their time and their mental health.

Twenge acknowledges that the internet can expose teens to adult content, and for this reason, many parents believe that iGen teens are maturing faster than those from previous generations. However, Twenge also asserts that present-day teens are less independent than children from past generations, partly because the prevalence of “helicopter parenting” today.

“[Parents’] current model is to have a few kids, to nurture them carefully, and to know that they’re going to grow up slowly,” Twenge said.

According to Twenge, the increased attention for iGen children, along with the introduction of the internet, has resulted in teens’ reduced engagement in “adult” behaviors, such as driving, drinking and dating, simply because teens get out of the house less. She emphasizes that this reduced exposure to the outside world has made teens less prepared to make decisions when they are adults.

“Adult is now a verb,” Twenge said. “So now you get, ‘Please don’t make me adult today. I’m done adulting.’”

In addition to growing up slower, teens also have different ways of spending time. Today’s adolescents spend more leisure time online because of the internet’s accessibility, which, according to Twenge, has resulted in sleep deprivation and loss of the informal get-togethers with friends that were characteristic of previous generations. She said that the changes in how teens spend their time has negatively impacted their mental health and happiness.

“I’ve looked at generational differences for 25 years now,” Twenge said. “Around 2011 and 2012, I started seeing some pretty big changes [in mental health]. That was the time when smartphones became common.”

According to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of emergency room visits for self-harm among adolescent girls rose dramatically around 2012, with an 18.8 percent rate increase every year. Twenge, who does her own research, cited that teens started feeling a lot more lonely, left out, suicidal and depressed around 2012.

Dr. Twenge answers parents' questions about her presentation. Photo by Ria Kolli.
Dr. Twenge answers parents’ questions about her presentation. Photo by Ria Kolli.

However, Twenge does realize that the correlation does not necessarily mean causation, and that there are many happy adolescents in the time of smartphones. She emphasizes that smartphones must be used in moderation. MVHS parent Tong Zhang, who attended Twenge’s presentation, agrees that excessive leisure time online is linked to unhappiness, but she also claims that there are other factors making teens susceptible to mental health issues.

“Another important factor that causes unhappiness of high school students is the ever growing pressure of making outstanding achievements both in and outside school so as to go to ‘good’ college,” Zhang said.

Twenge acknowledged that teenagers today need to use technology for schoolwork and other commitments, but emphasizes that the time spent on leisure activities, like social media and browsing, should not be excessive. She explained that other “non-screen” activities like exercise, sleep, and face-to-face interaction can increase happiness. Marzolf, who organized Twenge’s presentation, learned about ways to improve the mental health of her own children.

“[I learned about] the importance of fostering face-to-face social interactions with peers and the importance of having unstructured time without any electronics for our teenagers,” Marzolf said. “And that too much time on social media actually makes you feel less connected to your fellow human beings.”

Twenge also warned that the risks of imposing limits on leisure screen time are small. However, the risks of not taking any action are large, due to the observed degradation of mental health among teenagers.

“We are physically safer, but we are mentally vulnerable,” Twenge said. “This is the problem that we need to solve going forward.”