iGen Teens Shaped by Technology

“I’ve been on my phone more than I’ve been with actual people.” This matter-of-fact statement from 13-year-old “Athena” reflects a dramatic and pivotal shift in the behavior of her generation, a trend that is distinctly different from Millennials.

Social psychologist Jean M. Twenge, a leading American commentator on contemporary generational differences, has tagged these young people as “iGens.” Her research suggests that those born between 1995 and 2012 have been shaped by the combined influence of smartphones and social media.

Millennials gradually developed characteristics unique to their generation, but iGens are navigating an abrupt shift in teen behaviors and emotional states. The year 2012 was pivotal: this dramatic shift in behavior coincided with the exact moment when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent.

What is the biggest difference between Millennials and iGens? How they view the world and how they spend their time. Everyday experiences for iGens are radically different than the prior generation of teens.

iGens are growing up never knowing life without the internet, smartphones, and Instagram. In contrast, Millennials grew up with the web, but it was not ever-present, available day and night, at all times.

Ms. Twenge opines, “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.”

What characteristics are unique to the iGen generation?

Independence has lost its appeal.
“The allure of independence, so powerful to previous generations, holds less sway over today’s teens, who are less likely to leave the house without their parents. The shift is stunning: 12th graders in 2015 were going out less often than 8th graders as recently as 2009.” (Twenge)

Why? They are more comfortable in their bedrooms, hanging out with friends on social media, than in a car or at a party. Their social life is lived on their phone. They don’t need to leave home to spend time with their friends because they have access to them in virtual spaces through apps and the web.

That could explain why today’s teens are less likely to date, and even driving has lost its appeal. Twenge says “Childhood has now stretched well into high school.”

Happiness is elusive.
So does screen time make teens happier? No. Research shows that teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy; those who spend less time on-screen are happier.

Twenge describes iGens as “a lonely, dislocated generation.” She notes that extended screen time has been linked to depression, loneliness, isolation, and sleep deprivation in teens.

Why? Although they get together less often, when they do, they document it on social media, and those who were not invited feel even more isolated and left out. Today’s teens are psychologically more vulnerable than Millennials, and cyberbullying is devastating—especially among girls, whose suicide rate is higher than boys’.

Research reveals that iGens are sleeping less than the nine hours recommended by sleep experts, and teen addiction to smartphones may be disrupting their sleep. Analysts found that a whopping 57 percent more teens were sleep deprived in 2015 than in 1991. But, curiously, in just the four years from 2012 to 2015, 22 percent more teens failed to get even 7 hours of sleep. Once again the increase coincided with a growing fixation of teens with smartphones.

When Jean Twenge asked her class of college students what they do with their phone while they sleep, nearly all said they slept with their phone—under their pillow, on the mattress, or within arm’s reach of their bed. One student shared, “Having my phone closer to me while I’m sleeping is a comfort.” In Jean’s opinion, it may be a comfort, but the smartphone is cutting into teens’ sleep, and sleep deprivation can lead to depression, anxiety, compromised thinking, susceptibility to illness, weight gain, and high blood pressure.

Social skills may be affected.
iGen teens have fewer opportunities to learn and practice social skills in adolescence because they are not face-to-face with people. Ms. Twenge concludes, “In the next decade, we may see more adults who know just the right emoji for a situation, but not the right facial expression.”

There is a lot at stake here. With technology accelerating relentlessly, the combined influence of smartphones and social media is shaping these young lives. And in a society with media at our fingertips 24 hours a day, we would do well to teach—and model—moderation for this vulnerable generation of teens who are “super-connected, less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy, and completely unprepared for adulthood.” And to ponder what that means for the rest of us.

The Atlantic, adapted from Jean M. Twenge’s forthcoming book, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us.