Did Smartphones ‘Destroy’ a Generation? One Psychologist Thinks So.

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Remember what it was like before smartphones were everywhere? Twenty-five or so years ago, we were a much more disconnected society than we are today. News from across the country or the globe that used to take days to reach us. Today, a push alert from your favorite news app can let you know about these stories while they are still ongoing.

In fact, any sort of information – from where the nearest gluten-free restaurant is to who that actor in that thing was – was out of our reach everywhere save for maybe libraries. Thanks to these tiny computers in our pockets, we have access to almost any information we need at a second’s notice. But, according to a psychologist and author, the technological miracle of the smartphone is ruining an entire generation.

Jean M. Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the author of two books, one in which she names the post-millennial generation “iGen.” In a new essay for The Atlantic, Twenge writes that according to her research, iGen kids are both the most entitled and most depressed generation of all time. To Twenge, the culprit is clear: the smartphone. It entered iGens’ lives when its oldest members were adolescents (and when MySpace was still the dominant social network), and their bad state is thanks to it and the rise of social media in her view. But is she right?


How Have Smartphones Ruined a Generation?

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For her essay, Twenge looks at recent data about teenagers’ mental health and their usage of smartphones. She’s seen a correlation between teens who feel they’ve had a depressive episode and the amount of time they use their smartphones. When compared to the rates of angsty teens in the past, the number of kids who feel depressed is rising in a way that we should be concerned about. Her solution is that parents should limit the amount of time their teens spend staring at the screens of smartphones. 

She writes:

“What’s at stake isn’t just how kids experience adolescence. The constant presence of smartphones is likely to affect them well into adulthood. Among people who suffer an episode of depression, at least half become depressed again later in life. Adolescence is a key time for developing social skills; as teens spend less time with their friends face-to-face, they have fewer opportunities to practice them. In the next decade, we may see more adults who know just the right emoji for a situation, but not the right facial expression.”

One has to wonder if anyone, besides your humble correspondent, feels an impulse to dismiss this warning as typical hand-wringing. Anytime there is some kind of change happening, big or small, there is always someone who demands we must stop and “think of the children.” Still, whether or not you agree with Twenge, her conclusions should be given serious consideration.

Smartphones Are Bad Tech, So of Course They Will Ruin Society!

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For as long as there has been a younger generation, the older generation tends not to think too much of them. Everyone knows that Plato was one of the great philosophers of his time. We know this thanks to books written about him and containing his treatises. Yet, Plato lived during the time when Phoenicians introduced a written alphabet to the Greeks. Before this, they had no way to write things down, so it was literally a world-changing technology. But Plato and his (possibly fictional) mentor Socrates both decried this technology as bad for the world. Writing things down, they argued, would eliminate the need for people to remember things. If they hated the alphabet, they would certainly hate Google-powered phones answering our every question and plotting our directions.

Every technological advancement, especially those that make information more accessible such as novels or newspapers, have been the subject of societal scorn. People worry that such things will make humans less social and corrupt the ability of the youth to face adulthood. Today, adults complain about how everyone text messages and emails each other, but no one talks on the phone anymore. Yet in the late 19th century people complained that phones were intrusive devices that robbed people of privacy and face-to-face interactions.

Smartphones are amazing and are likely doing more good for the world than ever before. Cell phone technology has helped keep countries connected, especially in war-torn places like Iraq and Syria. With a smartphone in your pocket, you have access to any information you ever need and the outside world in cases of emergency. Any technology has it’s downside, but we have to be careful to not let these new problems get in the way of all the benefits.

Fine, But Kids Today Definitely Suck, Smartphones Are Only Part of the Reason Why!

Remember how you felt when you heard adults your parents’ age say that your entire generation was “worse” than theirs? You knew that not only was it just mean to say, it was also incorrect. So, remember that the next time you feel the need to trash the youth. Sure, thanks to computers, video game systems, and smartphones, maybe they don’t go outside as much as they used to. But, in 1695, author Robert Russel wrote that kids playing with friends in the streets turned kids into “lewd wicked Children” because they “have been heard to curse and swear and call one another Nick-names.”

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Pretty much all throughout history, the next generation leaves society better off than their forebears. Even though we worry about things like climate change and geopolitics, there is no question that trend continues. Fewer people than ever before are dying due to disease, violent crime, or war. More people live above the global poverty line than at any other time in human history. If anyone is going to “save” the human race, it’s not going to be us but rather our kids or their kids or so on.

Well What Is the Problem Then if Smartphones and Kids Are So Great?

The problem with helping kids navigate their way through growing up in this world of technology is that so few of us understand it. Ten years ago, MySpace and Facebook were equal competitors. Today, Facebook is an aging social media dinosaur for parents and digital media outlets. What social media is and how its used change so rapidly, parents can’t even understand it let alone help their kids deal with the new problems. For example, many folks think that cyber-bullying can’t be worse than actually being beaten up. Yet, in the old days, the bullying stopped at home. Today it happens all the time to a wider audience than ever before. 

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Ultimately, smartphones are tools that facilitate communication and the delivery of information. While communication can be a problem, other studies show that people who are more informed about the world tend to be more depressed. Bad stories are shared more than good stories, and discussions about said topics usually turn into vile arguments. Before teens worried that parents couldn’t understand what they were going through. Today, that’s actually true, because parents have no idea what a Snap-streak or a hashtag even is. It’s not the fault of the technology, per se, but rather how people use that tech. 

What Can We Do to Help Kids Navigate All This Craziness?

Whether her correlation between depression and usage of smartphones is correct or not, Twenge’s suggestion that parents limit their kids’ screen time can’t hurt. Part of the ultimate goal of parenting is to provide limits, even if they don’t always make sense at the time. But just taking away your kids’ tech is not enough to solve the problem and could even make it worse by making them feel like even more of an outsider. 

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Along with reasonable limits on screen time, parents should also force their kids to show them the social networks they are using. We all remember how important privacy is to kids, so don’t ask to go through their WhatsApp messages or Twitter DMs. Instead, ask the kid to show you how to use whatever apps they are using. This will both help you understand the tech itself and also how your kids use it. So, if they say that a friend is no longer speaking to them because they broke their Snap-streak, you know what they are talking about.


As Much as Technology Changes, Parenting Stays Pretty Much the Same.

Kids today have grown up in tough times, despite how much better off the world is today. The country has been at war longer than ever before. The economy crashed a decade ago and even though it’s rebounding, vast swaths of people have been left behind. Information comes at the faster than ever before, and kids don’t quite have the time or know-how to process it. Even if you struggle with that yourself, as an adult it’s on you to be proactive in teaching your kids. You not only want to guide them through all this, but also teach them to appreciate all that we have. 

Humans have always over-focused on the bad rather than the good, and smartphones just allow that focus to fall on more than ever before. Instead of trashing the kids or arguing that they are already “destroyed,” help them. Don’t resent their youth nor begrudge them the better world we provided to them. More than ever before, the whole world is telling them they are bad and they are going to fail. Counter that as parents by letting them know that it’s as wrong today as it was any other time its been said in history.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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