Jean Twenge on Parenting the Smartphone Generation

Oct 01, 2018

Last Tuesday night I attended a talk by Jean Twenge, author of the highly acclaimed book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.

I’ve read the book and been following her work closely since it was brought to my attention in The Atlantic article published in April of 2017, Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?, she presented updated data and nuances gained between the publishing of her book in early 2017 and fall 2018 — an eternity as it relates to the subject.

I found it interesting that Dr. Twenge doesn't study teens and screens per se, but instead she studies Psychology across generations. Screens only registered on her Richter scale because of the negative impact they’ve had on adolescent mental health—so dramatic, it’s shaping an entire generation. I suspect the continued study of digital media’s impact on adolescence will provide Dr. Twenge with fodder for a few more books, which I look forward to reading.

Dr. Twenge’s thesis is that in order for us to parent, teach and work with iGen, we need to understand who they are, the environment that we’ve allowed to influence them and what motivates their behavior.

For the book, Dr. Twenge surveyed a data set of 11 million teens about what they do with the time they have available then compared the answers to generations over time. Her talk revolved around three broad trends she noticed among teens--delayed adulthood, mental health decline and displaced behavior--all quite familiar to me as a mom of two teenagers.

Delayed Adulthood

We’ve all heard it at some point, “they’re growing up so fast!” After puberty, our kids look like grown-ups, occasionally act mature, and if forced to, can smell like adults. Parents WANT to believe the kids have a pre-frontal lobe, mainly because we’re TIRED of nagging, reminding and cleaning up.

But, according to Dr. Twenge, the data shows the opposite. Our kids are delaying many quintessential rites of passage to adulthood — driving, dating, and working—to name a few. This rings true for my 17-year-old. I had to threaten him with a tech-detox to pass his driver’s test, he doesn’t appear to be dating and he’s not self-motivated to find reliable work. He’s not a slacker, we regularly insist he earns his own money, and we’re not lenient parents--yet his behavior is the norm among his group of friends.

Twenge referred to a study from Arizona State University that suggests these changes could be a cultural adaptation to population growth. The study describes a “Slow Life Strategy”, in which adolescent behavior revolves around planning for the future, thus delaying marriage, having fewer children and investing more in education. This kind of long-term thinking is in sharp contrast to the “Fast Life Strategy” of the 1950s a time when people got married younger and childbirth was prolific, leaving less money for education.

Mental Health Decline

The second significant trend is the decline in adolescent mental health and happiness. Dr. Twenge’s data set clearly identifies 2012 as the beginning of a precipitous increase in depression, correlating with the explosion of the smartphone. Today, she notes, adolescents are experiencing unprecedented levels of anxiety, depression, and loneliness.

Could it be factors other than the smartphone? Maybe. But again, my personal experience aligns with this trend. I took four teenagers on vacation for Spring Break, my kids and two friends. We stayed in a beautiful house in San Diego between the Ocean and Mission Bay — a wonderland of things to see and do. Yet, when I let down my screen policing, I could see their attitude and mood darken as they’d isolate on their phone, scrolling for hours to see what they were missing. It truly was shocking to see the contrast in their mood after spending hours isolating behind a screen vs. skimboarding or strolling down the boardwalk.

One day, we went rollerblading and skateboarding and I insisted they only use the phone to take pictures of each other or the scenery— not selfies, no checking texts or Snapchat. Each time they’d take a picture, I saw them look down and start to respond to a PING and I’d stop them and remind them of our agreement. Even the kids themselves were surprised at how unconsciously they’d flip between the intentional use of their device (taking a picture) and the Pavlovian urge to react to the incoming stream of notifications. We all have so much to learn.

Displaced Behavior

So kids are maturing more slowly, feeling more depressed and spending more time on their smartphones. The next logical question is what are teenagers NOT doing because they’re on their smartphone? Dr. Twenge had the answers, and they don’t bode well for our kids.

The most prominent displaced activity is also one that affects many other aspects of our mental health — sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, lack of adequate sleep limits one’s ability to learn, listen, concentrate, solve problems and could even make teens more prone to pimples! Yet, most parents allow their kids to sleep with their phone, supported by the flimsy logic, “it’s his/her alarm clock.” Other behaviors in decline are face-to-face socialization with friends, attending religious services, reading books and going out without their parents. Not surprisingly, this finding also is consistent with my life experience. 

Since my kids were little, I’ve actively cultivated their love of reading. I became friendly with the local children’s librarians, brought my kids to get personal recommendations and checked out bags full of library books each week. My kids would grab the bags of new books, each of them trying to find the comic books and Next-Book-In-A-Series first. Now, it’s a struggle to get my kids to read ANYTHING — even the nonsense on cereal boxes or directions for taking aspirin.

So what’s a parent to do? Dr. Tweng offered some suggestions and I’ve added some of my own comments below.

  1. Take the phone out of the room. Kids can’t resist the lure and alarm clocks are cheap.
  2. Model healthy tech use. Monkey see monkey do and kids smell hypocrisy.
  3. If using screens in the evening, use orange safety glasses to filter out the blue light that can cause insomnia.
  4. Use a digital media monitoring device. Apple and Android phones provide monitoring options in their respective operating systems but they should be configured and enforced by an adult in the family.
  5. Institute regular family screen sabbaticals. Afterward, the hiatus, discuss how you feel with your children.

With Dr. Twenge’s findings in mind, I urge parents to take action on limiting screens. Bring consciousness to your own tech use, start modeling healthy new healthy habits and talk to your kids about doing the same. What will you do to control technology in your home?

To get you started,  download our free copy of Help Teens Balance  Screen Time Without Taking Away Their Freedom

Marissa Verson Harrison is the co-founder of ScreenAge BootCamp, an online training platform for modern families. We help parents, and the teens they love, balance media use and learn new skills for the knowledge economy. Sign up here to find out more!


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