BreakPoint: Rescuing iGen

Teens Raised on Smartphones Need an Escape Plan

Imagine the best memories of your youth. Now imagine all of them replaced by a screen. Unless we can outsmart phones, this will be reality for a generation. Stay tuned to BreakPoint.

It seems like millennials are always texting, swiping, browsing, Snapchatting, Instagramming, or wasting time in some other way on a device, and dinosaurs like me have been quick to complain about it. But it turns out millennials, most of whom remember cassette tapes and graduated high school with flip phones, were old enough to ride the technological wave of the 2010s without getting sucked under.

Writing at The Atlantic, Jean Twenge points out that there’s another, younger generation that got pummeled by the smartphone revolution.

Those born after 1995, typically called “generation Z,” were just entering their teen years when Steve Jobs introduced the world to the iPhone. Appropriately, Twenge dubs these young people, “iGen.”

Unlike millennials, these kids cannot remember a time before the Internet. Like laboratory mice, they’ve been the unwitting subjects of a historic experiment. What effect has this had on them?

Twenge paints a bleak picture, and it goes far deeper than the typical concerns about diminished attention spans. Smartphones and other devices have shaped these teens’ worlds, from their social lives to their mental health.

Teen suicide has skyrocketed since 2011. One survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that teens who spent ten hours or more a week on social media were 56 percent more likely to experience symptoms of depression. According to two national surveys, those glued to screens at least three hours a day were 28 percent more likely to suffer sleep deprivation.

It doesn’t end there. The younger generation is spending less time outside than any other crop of kids—ever. Twelfth-graders in 2015 spent fewer hours out of the house than eighth-graders did in 2009! They don’t get their driver’s licenses as early as their parents did, they’re more than twenty percent less likely to have jobs, and they aren’t even interested in spending time with friends, at least not in person. The number of teens who regularly get together socially has dropped by an astonishing forty percent since 2000.

Where are they spending all their time? Well, mostly at home, in their rooms, staring at screens. One teenager described the crater she’d left on her bed from spending all summer Snapchatting. Another admitted, “I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”

“iGen,” Twenge concludes, “[is] on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades.” And overuse of technology and social media is the most obvious culprit.

Well, here’s the good news, and I know you’re ready for it: Research indicates that much of this is reversible. Kids and teens who spend an above average amount of time with friends in person are 20 percent less likely to say they’re unhappy. Fewer hours spent staring at a screen correlates with better sleep. And as blogger, Andrew Sullivan, put it recently, cutting back on online time just makes you feel human again.

“If you were going to give advice for a happy adolescence…” writes Twenge, “it would be straightforward: Put down the phone, turn off the laptop, and do something—anything—that does not involve a screen.”

Restricting your kids’ smartphone use may not sound like the best way to stay on their good side. And if they’re older, you’ll need to explain yourself, and reach agreements as a family about technology, not simply lay down the law. Why not show them this commentary?

You may find that your teens are more open to setting boundaries around screen time than you think. After all, their devices are not fulfilling them. Members of iGen may be in a better position than anyone to understand that there’s nothing smart about being enslaved to a phone.


Rescuing iGen: Teens Raised on Smartphones Need an Escape Plan

Studies show that we are more fulfilled when we have face-to-face, relational interaction. So encourage friends and family to take sufficient time away from screens. When technology replaces most in-person contact, it’s time to set some boundaries–and not just for the younger generations.


A Practical Guide to Culture: Helping the Next Generation Navigate Today's World
  • John Stonestreet, Brett Kunkle | David C. Cook Publishers | June 2017
Screens and Teens: Connecting with Our Kids in a Wireless World
  • Kathy Koch | Moody Publishers | March 2015
Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?
  • Jean M. Twenge | The Atlantic | September 2017

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  • Just One Voice

    Hah, I like the sentence about being a dinosaur. I’m totally a dinosaur in my own way too.

    I was born in 1983. Between that and the way my parents raised us, I barely escaped the tidal wave of technology that sucked so many away. Now, I cringe when friends & or family come over and they’re on their phones. I constantly have to be the one to say “let’s play a game! or “let’s go for a walk!”

    • jason taylor

      You escaped the tidal wave of technology? Perhaps you did it riding on a mule?

      • Just One Voice


      • Just One Voice

        Oh, I think I get what you’re saying now. Mules are slower, can’t keep up as fast, etc.

        Many would probably take offense to that, but I actually don’t. Like I said before, I’m a dinosaur in my own way, so I don’t give a rip.

        If you google “Xennials” you’ll find a mostly accurate description of the relationship between technology and I. I’ve learned to use it, and embrace it to a degree. But I refuse to let it define me!

        • gladys1071

          i am like you, i have been slow in embracing technology, i am somewhat of a luddite. I am generation X , so i am older than you, so i remember pay phones, used them quite a bit. I did not go on the internet until 1999, which is considered late, my husband is quite a luddite too, he just got a smartphone barely 1 YEAR AGO.

  • Arnold Kropp

    I’ve got 5 grandsons born after 1995. I offered them a challenge: For a mere 24 hour period, from the time you get up in the morning till the same tomorrow: no cell phone, no computer, no TV. They looked at me with astonishment, and yet these are good kids. Dad and Mom take them out camping and kayaking, they love to fish and play games in the woods behind the house. Yet, they would not accept.

    When I relate some of the stories of growing up in the 40’s (born 1938) they don’t know what to say, or even question. Yeah, I’m really a dinosaur, one of those ancients who don’t know ‘nutin’.

  • Phoenix1977

    With schools using more and more apps for tablets and smartphones restricting access to their devices is a lost cause. Even governments join in on the side of technology. Earlier this week it was announced the European Union will fund free smartphones for all new high school students who’s parents cannot afford smartphones for their children. Their argument is the exact opposite of this commentary. They stated society is obliged to make sure children are not left behind in today’s digital world.
    Spicy detail: an amendment to this new policy by Christian factions to restrict access of these smartphones so students cannot search for “unwanted information” didn’t make it. When asked what “unwanted information” entailed the spokesperson of the Christian faction stated it included everything the bible is opposed of, like pornography but also homosexuality. And especially the last element made the liberal faction (the largest in the European Parliament) to vote against the amendment, although their spokesperson agreed teenagers using their smartphones to search for porn was unwanted. But restricting any type of internet access for anyone was unacceptable for the liberals.

    So it seems this is another lost fight, don’t you agree?