First Monday: Professor Twenge Explores the Consequences of Technology on iGen

How smartphones have hurt more than helped.

Photo By Matthew Maciag

On Monday, Nov. 26, Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, addressed the Colorado College community during this block’s First Monday event series: “Cultural Trends Shaping iGen: Individualism, Insecurity, and the Internet.” 

Twenge’s address centered around the cultural and practical differences between iGen — those born between 1995 and 2012 — and previous generations, focusing primarily on social media and smartphone use. She also explored the possible consequences of said use already seen in teenagers today, many of which were both alarming and ominous. 

After presenting broad generational trends and differences found in data from the last half century, Twenge discussed the sharp decline in rates of happiness among teenagers seen in the past decade. She showed the audience a graph demonstrating that since 2011, young people have felt more unhappy, left out, and lonely — all sentiments that had previously been steadily decreasing since the 1990s. Twenge also mentioned the alarming increase in suicide attempt rates among iGen teenagers, which current data suggests has doubled over the past seven years. 

After presenting these figures, Twenge addressed the audience.

 “Pretty much anybody looking at this data has the same question: ‘What happened?,’ said Twenge.

Through thorough investigation, Twenge realized that much of the aforementioned changes began around 2011–2012 — the same time frame, according to Pew Research, that the majority of Americans owned a smartphone for the first time. 

After establishing the connection between mass smartphone adaptation and declining mental health among teenagers, Twenge then presented a graph demonstrating how rates of depression, smartphone adaptation, and time spent online are all positively correlated. 

This link between depression and screen time was both striking and affirmative for audience members, such as Elam Boockvar-Klein ’20. 

“I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that our smartphones were having a negative impact on both our social lives and mental health,” said Boockvar-Klein. “Dr. Twenge put words to that gut feeling — that our screen time has dramatically changed the way in which we interact with others and think about ourselves.” 

The number of 12th graders who say they are on social media every day has increased from 50 percent in 2008 to 90 percent today. Additional studies have found that high school students spend anywhere between six and nine hours online every day. While current data clearly show that daily screen time has been drastically increasing, face-to-face interaction has been steadily decreasing since the early 2000s and plummeting since 2011. 

Nowadays, people frequently make broad assertions about the amount of time teenagers currently spend online, but Twenge’s graphs provided the raw data that many students were missing to demonstrate such statements. 

“So often I hear adults and the media saying negative things like ‘your generation is glued to their phones,’ ‘you all are so disconnected from each other,’ ‘kids’ obsession with social media is bad,’ etc.,” said Amy Bolton ’19. “But it was really valuable seeing the data that backed up these blanket statements.” 

Twenge’s presentation served to both affirm and expand many attendees’ conceptions of modern-day internet usage while also warning of the potential consequences. Despite the alarming nature of said consequences and her chilling conclusions, she ended her talk on a note of optimism and hope. 

“Technology that is supposed to bring us together and connect us often ends up isolating us,” Twenge said. “We have what I think can only be described as a mental health crisis of young people. On the other side, that same technology has brought us so many benefits; we know so much more about health and have access to so much health information on our phones … We need to find a way for smartphones to light our way instead of darken it.” 

Grace Perry

Grace Perry

Grace Perry has been writing for the Catalyst since January 2018. She is a sociology major and double minor in journalism and Spanish.

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