The post-millennial generation is often known as Generation Z, but researcher and psychology professor Jean Twenge considers iGen a more fitting moniker.
That’s because the group – born in 1995 and beyond – was the first to spend the teen years in the company of the smartphone. Twenge says that single influence has had a dramatic impact of their lives.
She says members of the iGen are motivated, realistic, safe and supporters of equality, yet their mental health is suffering. Fascinated by her research, I recently sat down with the San Diego State professor of psychology to find out how the smartphone has shaped this generation and what parents can learn from their experience.
Laurel Gregory: How does the iGen behave in terms of time with their friends, going out and conversing with friends?
Jean Twenge: When you compare iGen teens with teens just five or 10 years ago, they spend more time online and communicating with their friends electronically and less time with their friends face to face, whether that’s just hanging out or driving around in a car or going to a party. In-person social interactions, iGen teens do it less than teens did a decade ago.
LG: Tell me where the data you’ve collected comes from?
JT: They are government funded studies but they are administered mostly out of universities and research groups. So they are of 8th graders, 10th graders and 12th graders, so it’s a nationally representative sample in the U.S.
A very big sample; when you put all of the data from all of them together it adds up to 11 million people and it goes back decades. So you can compare teens and young adults now to teens and young adults 10 years ago or 20 years ago or even in some cases 40 or 50 years ago.
LG: You’ve been looking at this kind of data for over 20 years, correct?
JT: Yes, that’s right. I’ve been doing research on generational differences for almost 25 years so since I was an undergraduate.
LG: Tell me when you saw the biggest shift. When did it happen and why do you think it occurred?
JT: Since I’ve been doing this for so long, I got used to certain patterns in the data. There would be changes but they would roll out over a decade or two before they really got going.
But then around 2011 or 2012 I started to see some very large and very sudden changes among teens in how they spent their time and how they said they were feeling. For example, right around that time there was a sudden spike in the number of teens who said they felt lonely and that they felt left out.
There was also a sudden increase in depression; a sudden decrease in happiness, in life satisfaction. So just across the board – really suddenly – around 2012 or so teens started to be less happy and more depressed.
LG: What were some of the external factors that may have been happening?
JT: When you look at cultural change you have to consider economic factors but that was a time when the U.S. economy was improving. The recession was over and things were getting better so it didn’t seem like it was economic cycles. Other economic factors like changes in the income inequality and changes in the job market had been going on for decades. They didn’t show a sudden spike in 2011 or 2012. But, there was one thing that was a really big change in teens lives.
2012 is the year when the percentage of Americans who owned a smartphone crossed 50 per cent, so that was the time period when smartphones became common. They went from something the minority of people were doing to something the majority were doing and that seemed to be the tipping point in how teens were spending their leisure time. They started spending a lot more time on social media and online and less time with their friends in person.
LG: Did you pinpoint where the loneliness, depression, anxiety was coming from?
JT: It’s really, really hard to pinpoint exactly what the cause is. My best theory in looking at the data is that it is displacement. You get the biggest effects on depression and unhappiness among the teens who are spending a lot of time online.
Four or more hours a day is when the most negative effects show up and I think it’s because that becomes so much time that it crowds our time for seeing your friends in person and – crucially – for sleeping enough. So teens need nine hours of sleep a night and among 17 and 18-year-olds, more than 50 per cent are sleeping less than seven. That has spiked since 2012 as well. So right around 2012, same thing when the smartphone shows up: there’s more teens who are not sleeping enough and that’s a huge risk factor for depression and unhappiness as well as physical health maladies.
LG: What evidence is there that smartphones are making us unhappy?
JT: The evidence for the happiness decline and the increase in depression and even suicide, that’s very strong. No one disputes that, that we have this mental health crisis arguably on our hands. At the very least we know – yes, there’s this big increase in depression and suicide and unhappiness. Explaining why is always harder.
I do think smartphones is the most plausible explanation because the timing lines up and we know, among teens, those who spend a lot of time online and on social media are less happy and those who spend a lot of time with their friends in person, and sleeping and exercising are happier.
Then you have to say, ‘So what causes what?’ Is it the unhappy teens who are then spending more time on screens? The good thing is there are some studies that have come close to ruling out that explanation. They follow people over time and find it’s almost always the screen time that leads to unhappiness instead of unhappiness leading to more screen time. There are experiments that have looked at this as well where they have just randomly assigned people to, say, give up Facebook for a week versus not. Those that gave up Facebook ended up happier and less depressed.
READ MORE: 5 reasons you might want to give up Facebook
LG: You are a parent to three children emerging into that phase of life. If you had a teen today, or even a preteen, what are the things you would be doing to make sure they don’t succumb to the issues some of their peers are?
JT: My oldest is 11 and most of the kids in her class already do have a smartphone. She doesn’t and we are going to stick with that for as long as we can, ideally until high school. If we feel like she needs a phone for taking the bus or coming back from activities we might get her a flip phone because then that has the communication capabilities without being so tempting with so many things to do in terms of social media and online and everything else.
Once she goes get her own phone, I’m probably going to put an app on it that limits the amount of time she can use it and limits the amount of time she can use certain apps. So I could say, for example, ‘Sure you can be on Snapchat but you have half an hour a day or an hour a day and that’s it.’ Top of my list is that phone is going to shut down at 9 p.m. on school nights and just becomes a brick. You can’t use it anymore. You have to go to sleep.
LG: What do we do as a community to avoid what you basically call an impending mental health crisis?
JT: One thing that’s very important for educators and parents to know is that the key isn’t no use of technology. Technology is here to stay. Even smartphones, they are wonderful devices and they can do so many great things for us. The key is to use it for what it’s good for and then put it down and go live your life. So limited use.
What the data seems to suggest is use of two hours a day or less doesn’t seem to have harmful effects and what’s great about that is that’s a good chunk of time.
That’s enough time for even a socially connected teen to spend on social media, look up things online, because this is leisure time, it doesn’t count as homework.
You can choose to use that leisure time for something else and I think that’s actually the positive news here. Most of the things that we know determine happiness and prevent against depression are out of our control: genetic predisposition, bad things that happen, trauma. But how you use your leisure time, that you can control. So if you can use the phone and put it away but then go see your friends, give them a hug, talk to them, get enough sleep, go get some exercise, it’s much more likely to make you happy.