iGen: Q&A with Jean Twenge, PhD
We recently sat down with Jean Twenge, PhD and author of iGen: Characteristics of Today’s Super-Connected Kids. During this informative presentation, Jean discussed 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.
Q: How do you define “iGen”?
A: iGen includes those born 1995–2012. They are the first generation to spend their entire adolescence in the age of the smartphone.
Q: In your book you talk about a variety of unique characteristics of iGen. What are some of the more problematic attributes that you see?
A: The most concerning trend for iGen is the steep rise in mental health issues, especially depression and self-harm. The suicide rate for teens has also doubled over the last 10 years. Because these statistics are measured through anonymous surveys and medical records, we know these trends are not due to more people being willing to seek help. More young people are suffering mentally.
Q: You also reference several other behaviors and characteristics of iGen that may appear to be positive at first glance. Delaying alcohol use and being less rebellious are two examples. Can you explain why in some cases even these seemingly positive attributes can have negative consequences?
A: iGen is taking longer to grow to adulthood. This includes some behaviors many consider positive, such as delaying alcohol use. It also includes other behaviors, such as being less likely to have a paid job or go out without your parents. Those trends aren’t really good or bad per se, but they do mean that iGen has less experience with independence when they graduate from high school. iGen is also very interested in safety—“less rebellious” is one way to capture that. Safety is a great thing when it protects teens from physical harm. It’s not as good when it protects them from experiences that might help them learn and grow.
Q: What role does social media play with iGeners and what are some of the more serious consequences that you’re seeing?
A: The increase in teen depression started around 2011-2012, right as smartphones became popular and social media moved from being optional to virtually mandatory among teens. These trends in technology also coincided with teens sleeping less and spending less time with their friends in person. This shift in time use is not a good formula for mental health and well-being. In most cases, using social media an hour or so a day is unlikely to be harmful, but when teens are spending most of their leisure time with screens it has the potential to crowd out time for more beneficial activities. The pervasiveness of social media also has an impact even on teens who don’t use social media, since their friends likely do, which changes the whole social dynamic.
Q: How has the COVID-19 global pandemic further impacted today’s kids?
A: It will be a few months before we have truly comparable data from before vs. during the pandemic on the mental health of teens. Early indications are mixed: there have been more ER visits for mental health issues, but levels of unhappiness and depression are stable in surveys. Also, by the principle “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” living through a challenge like the pandemic might even be good for kids and teens in the long run. It will be interesting to see what the next year will bring.
Q: What do you see as the future for iGen kids as they enter the workforce? And what can employers do to prepare?
A: iGen is very practical and has a strong work ethic—managers may be pleasantly surprised by their crop of new hires. On the other hand, employers should be prepared to hear more about speech from iGen. iGen sees offensive speech just as negatively as offensive actions. In the coming years, there may be calls for having safe spaces at work just as there are safe spaces on college campuses.
Q: What advice would you give to parents of iGeners to help mitigate some of the potentially negative outcomes we’ve discussed?
A: Here’s the good news: We don’t have to give up technology; we just need to use it more mindfully. Make sure phones and tablets don’t interfere with sleep—take them out of the bedroom at night. Use parental controls on smartphones to shut them down at night and limit use to reasonable levels. Don’t allow children 12 and under to have their own social media accounts (this is actually the law, but it’s not enforced). And make sure your kids have experience with independence. Yes, we want to keep them safe, but it’s good for them to learn how to make decisions on their own
Jean Twenge, PhD and author of iGen: Characteristics of Today’s Super-Connected Kids
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