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Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?

4 August 2017

From The Atlantic:

One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”

Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”

I’ve been researching generational differences for 25 years, starting when I was a 22-year-old doctoral student in psychology. Typically, the characteristics that come to define a generation appear gradually, and along a continuum. Beliefs and behaviors that were already rising simply continue to do so. Millennials, for instance, are a highly individualistic generation, but individualism had been increasing since the Baby Boomers turned on, tuned in, and dropped out. I had grown accustomed to line graphs of trends that looked like modest hills and valleys. Then I began studying Athena’s generation.

Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs, and many of the distinctive characteristics of the Millennial generation began to disappear. In all my analyses of generational data—some reaching back to the 1930s—I had never seen anything like it.

. . . .

What happened in 2012 to cause such dramatic shifts in behavior? It was after the Great Recession, which officially lasted from 2007 to 2009 and had a starker effect on Millennials trying to find a place in a sputtering economy. But it was exactly the moment when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent.

The more I pored over yearly surveys of teen attitudes and behaviors, and the more I talked with young people like Athena, the clearer it became that theirs is a generation shaped by the smartphone and by the concomitant rise of social media. I call them iGen. Born between 1995 and 2012, members of this generation are growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet. The Millennials grew up with the web as well, but it wasn’t ever-present in their lives, at hand at all times, day and night. iGen’s oldest members were early adolescents when the iPhone was introduced, in 2007, and high-school students when the iPad entered the scene, in 2010. A 2017 survey of more than 5,000 American teens found that three out of four owned an iPhone.

The advent of the smartphone and its cousin the tablet was followed quickly by hand-wringing about the deleterious effects of “screen time.” But the impact of these devices has not been fully appreciated, and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans. 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.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

PG hesitates to question “yearly surveys of teen attitude”, but if the American Civil War, World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War didn’t destroy their generations, he still holds out hope that the iPhone won’t destroy its generation.

Technology changes certainly have an impact on society (see horse-drawn buggies vs. automobiles), but humans have shown a persistent ability to utilize new technology and still survive. But that sentiment would make a terrible title for a magazine article.


18 Comments to “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”

  1. Not certain about destroyed, but it does make communicating with them more difficult. “But Teacher, just text us. We never check e-mail.”

    No, because I have to have a printable record of communications for legal reasons, and it has to be accessible by the school administration.

    That and trying to convince them that they don’t know enough yet about [subject] to sort the useful from the incorrect on the ‘Net…

    • I started using email and mailing lists in the late 1980s. A few years ago I gave them up. Too many idiot admins blocking entire Class A chunks of the internet “to fight spam”, too many high-strung spam filters at ISPs, and less than half of my mail was deliverable, and from comments from people who had sent messages to me, less than half probably arrived. Except for the spam, of course, which was endless.

      I no longer use email because it simply isn’t reliable enough to be worth my time.

  2. This looks like a case of the article’s thesis and the headline writer’s agenda differing appreciably.

  3. I have a child going into middle school, and have found that for social reasons she pretty much has to have a smartphone. If she doesn’t, she is effectively invisible. The OP has lots of interesting information, although some of it might be a little bit overdone. It is certainly something that we intend to keep a close eye on however.

    I will say though, this isn’t just her iGen generation. Almost everyone I know who fully embraces the smartphone revolution shows this sort of behavior. I find it amusing to attend a team lunch and see the entire table looking at their phones to the exclusion of anything else. I have my own rules and keep my phone in my pocket unless I need it or am alone.

    I see overuse of social networks in many adults – I think it just shows up more in her statistical tracking of kids.


  4. I remember years ago in Latin class, translating letters written way back when by Pliny (?) to a friend.

    We students were mildly perturbed to find out that parents thousands of years ago complained about the same things our parents did. We whined incessantly for money, wanted better transportation, worried them with our addle-brained behaviors, etc. And why didn’t we write home more often? Not just when we wanted money?

    Will today’s kids look at and live in the world differently than we did? Sure. Because it is a different culture. But I suspect the world will go on.

  5. A few years ago I had my first “shock” at how different the young are from what I know. I was visiting my daughter in college and was waiting for her to get out of a class in the lobby of her dorm. I watched in another corner of the lobby a group of about a dozen freshmen aged “kids” hanging out in a group. It was quiet as they were all on their smart phones. Fifteen minutes later my daughter arrived and we left. I asked her what those kids were doing and she said they were having a birthday party for one of them. *boggle* I told her it seemed strange that no one was talking or laughing. She said that behavior is common. I then asked… are they at least texting to each other in the group and she laughed “Doubt it”.

    Thank god I raised a luddite who mostly rejects such modern technology

    • That’s so sad. No human interaction at a college birthday party. Why even bother?

      I make my niece call me if we have more than a few words to exchange. I refuse to type a conversation with a relative. Brief interactions, yes. But no if we need to talk about things in depth. So when I text “Call me” I always get “LOL.”

  6. This generation is completely out of control! Back in my day, we gossiped at the soda shop after school and took Quaaludes all weekend. And we waited next to the telephone, yes we did. We waited for Wyatt to call and talk about nothing in particular. Eventually he’d swing by in his ’66 Camaro and drive us away without telling us where we were going, or whether we’d be back in time for dinner. . . .

  7. To paraphrase Bill Gates: People overestimate/overreact to short term change and underappreciate long term change.

    Teenagers will always be teenagers no matter what toys they play with.

    (Oh, and “social media” is just a fancy term for “gossip”.

  8. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.

    That was the part I thought was “ruinous” and “weird.” I grew up in the Stranger Danger era and kids had wayyy more independence than that.

    You went outside to play, your parents didn’t see you, and you came back when the streetlights came on. Or you went into the woods to play, and maybe another kid brought a BB gun.

    If you went to the mall or over to a friend’s house, you called once to say you’d arrived, and called again if you needed to be picked up.

    Why do Kids Today need so much tethering to their parents? I bet they don’t; since kids did without it for all of human history till cellphones existed. Their parents just can’t resist the siren’s call of tethering their kids now that cell phones are real. Get off my lawn 🙂

    • That sounds about right, Jamie. I grew up in a small town and we had a neighborhood gang that hung out together. We roamed around like a pack of dogs. We rode our bikes all over town, went swimming at the lake, played hide-and-seek or ball at the neighbor’s house with the big field, built forts and tree houses in the woods…

      We managed to survive, somehow.

      The only time my mother called me was to come home for dinner…and by “called” I mean she literally walked out on the back porch and hollered for us to come home.

      • Yup. Then one kid finally got a truck and we all piled in and cruised around. No seat belts. Lie down when you see the police, etc…

        My teacher friends have noticed the result. Kids can’t handle their own business as well. They end up being so used to having authority around constantly they lag way behind in learning how to deal with stuff. Especially in person.

        Even something as small as being called names or some small disagreement can necessitate teacher/parent involvement. Bullies are solely the responsibility of the authority figure as well, there’s none of this “someday he’ll mess with the wrong kid and get his ass kicked” method of dealing with mean kids.

        I swear, what we did to bullies in my day (80’s and early 90’s) would get us sent to counseling today. Lol. Glory days.

        I don’t even have a cell phone. No service out here.

  9. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.

    Kurt Vonnegut wrote that about bad words/coarse language. I’m betting it just as easily applies to new gadgets feared by grown-ups.

  10. From the title, I thought this was about how smartphone radiation is causing lower sperm counts among millennials.

    Also, people still cruise malls?

    • Where I live, malls are going away, one by one.

      Most of them allowed feral packs of hoodlums to stake out “turf”, which led decent folk to avoid the malls and buy online.

      Obviously it’s all Amazon’s fault…

  11. > since 2012

    Somehow that doesn’t seem all that impressive, considering I’ve had my current phone since 2007.

  12. Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?

    Yes. Gone. Very sad.

  13. Al the Great and Powerful

    No, I don’t think so. Not in big-city Honolulu, certainly not in very small-town Kauai. Cell phones, yes, gobs of them, in both places, but cell phone zombies? Nope.

    But railing about the behavior of the young and how they fail to worship the same gods as the old will always sell articles…

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