The Deficits of the iPhone Generation


Members of iGen suffer from serious intellectual and moral deficits: they are ill-informed, uninterested in pursuing relevant information, passionate without being active, afraid of debate with those who disagree, and uninterested in learning or exploration.

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“iGen” is both the title of Jean M. Twenge’s most recent book (subtitle: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy, and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood), and the name she has coined for the generation succeeding the Millennials. Twenge, who has been studying generational differences for a quarter century, includes within iGen those born between 1995 and 2012, plus or minus a bit. What ties this generation together? It is their hitherto unknown relationship to social media and its technological platform: they are “the first generation to enter adolescence with smartphones already in their hands.”

Twenge sees that smartphone as the thread running through ten features of this generation: heavy internet use, decline in person-to-person interaction, a rise in mental-health issues, a decline in religiosity, a concern with safety, a lack of civic involvement, income insecurity, “new attitudes towards sex, relationships, and children,” inclusivity, and political independence. While her effort is primarily descriptive, she does see normative differences. She shows real concern over what she sees as a mental-health “crisis” but praises iGen for “leading the way toward more equality and acceptance” on LGBT issues.

Despite her attempt at a balanced assessment, however, I think the verdict to render on iGen on the basis of Twenge’s book is even more negative than she does. I see it as a catalogue of deficits, of which four stand out.

Mental Health and Meaninglessness

First, as Twenge argues extensively, there is a mental-health deficit, one clearly correlated with screen time: “teens who spend more time on screens are more likely to be depressed, and those who spend more time on nonscreen activities are less likely to be depressed.” This, in turn, leads to a higher risk of suicide. One reason for the connection between smartphone/internet use and depression is the predominance of cyberbullying. Another is the negative impact that excessive smartphone use has on sleep. And surely yet another is the simple disconnectedness from real things and real people that is experienced by those whose primary forms of personal interaction are mediated by a screen.

Twenge’s advice in response to this is admirably direct: “Put down the phone.” This is exactly right. But this will never happen unless parents are smarter about when to introduce smartphones in their children’s lives. I was interested recently to hear of a “Wait Until 8th” movement, attempting to convince parents not to allow their children to use smartphones until at least eighth grade. That is a start, but what eighth-grader really needs constant access to the internet? “Nein until 9th” or “When? 10th” would be even better.

Second, there is a deficit of meaning. This deficit shows up in several places in Twenge’s book. The smartphone and its virtual spaces seem to be the primary place where teens spend time together. Their capacity for and interest in serious personal relationships with others is deeply impaired. Another example: Twenge devotes a chapter to the declining religious participation of iGen. According to Twenge, by 2016, “one out of three 18-24 year olds said they did not believe in God.” Twenge attributes this in part to “American culture’s increasing focus on individualism,” and this seems plausible. A third example: Twenge describes the attitude of iGen students entering college as “money is in, and meaning is out.” Academics located in humanities departments will hear this as a familiar refrain, linked as it now is to the imperative, if you are teaching history, philosophy, or English literature, to show that the knowledge you are imparting can be made “to pay.” The idea that some activities, including the pursuit of knowledge, are valuable for their own sake is uncommon, and results in a massively instrumentalizing attitude toward the value of a university education.

All three of these examples, and more, add up to a deficit in iGen of interest in genuine human goods for their own sake. Similarly, members of iGen are not particularly interested in marriage or meaningful work. Anecdotally, I have found recent college students, for the first time in my career, to show actual interest in plugging in to Robert Nozick’s famous “experience machine.” It could provide one with a lifetime of pleasure or the illusion of great activities, were you to plug in for good, but at the expense of any real personal relationships or genuine projects and pursuits. Nozick thought it obvious that one should not plug in; today’s students, not so much.

Seeking Safety, Avoiding Risk

A third deficit is one of responsibility. Repeatedly, Twenge tells us that iGen is not interested in “growing up,” nor does there appear to be any pressing need to do so. Far fewer teens are driving, or working; their parents are apparently willing to drive them where they need to go and provide what money they require. The aversion to driving is, in turn, linked at least in part to an overwhelming interest in personal safety. There are certainly benefits to this: today’s teens are safer, affording to Twenge. But the aversion to risk demonstrated by iGen extends beyond the physical to “intellectual, social, and emotional risks.”

It is here that Twenge locates the dismal recent phenomenon of “safe spaces” on college campuses. In a survey conducted by Twenge on her own campus, “three out of four students agreed” that safe spaces should be created on campus when controversial speakers were invited to speak. She notes further how increasingly common is the equation of speech with physical violence, and concludes that “all this focus on protection, safety, comfort, and home is the downside of teens growing up more slowly: they are unprepared to be independent and thus want college to be home.”

Linking the theme of safety with the instrumentalization of higher education previously mentioned, Twenge writes:

To Boomer, GenX’er, and even many Millennial faculty and administrators, college is a place for learning and exploration, and that includes being exposed to ideas different from your own. That, they believe, is the whole point of going to college in the first place. iGen’ers disagree: college, they feel, is a place to prepare for a career in a safe environment.

As I mentioned earlier, iGen is largely descriptive, yet Twenge shows admirable awareness of the ways in which these generational characteristics are negative. That is easy enough with impaired mental health, but Twenge is alive to the fact that the loss of meaningful activity and the hyper-concern for safety are also deficits, as I have described them. Yet it seems to me that Twenge allows ideological agreement to trump sober assessment where a fourth deficit is concerned.

The Downside of Inclusivity

iGen is, Twenge says, “inclusive.” They are deeply supportive of LGBT issues, including same-sex marriage, and their inclusivity is tied even to the decline of spiritual and religious interest and activity. After all, religion has “too many rules,” many about sex. iGen’ers are not terribly interested in sex itself—porn is “safer.” But they are resolutely opposed to anyone telling anyone else how to live their lives. At the same time, they are themselves not terribly tolerant of controversy and disagreement: as we’ve seen, they favor safe spaces and trigger warnings, and share a suspicion of microagressions.

They are, Twenge writes, politically independent (though she also accurately describes them as libertarian); but they are also fairly uninvolved, politically. They are suspicious of government, and, despite talking a good game, are “less likely to take political action: political participation reached all-time lows in 2014 and 2015.” Your average iGen’er is, in Twenge’s words “Not a huge news fan,” and they are “considerably less informed than their predecessors.”

Twenge is alert to some of the dangers here. iGen’ers are as polarized as the rest of the nation, and their smartphone dependence is a contributing factor. This could lead, she thinks, to “more candidates resort[ing] to the politics of celebrity to get iGen’ers’ attention, with fame and bombastic proclamations the key to leading in the polls.”

Yet she also sees some virtues:

iGen’ers are finding new ways to move for social change, from changing their Facebook profile picture to an equality sign to hashtagging a tweet about a cause. It might not be marching in the streets, but – as the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage showed – such pervasive awareness can start to shift the opinions of average Americans and eventually the law. Much of the awareness of Black Lives Matter spread online. That is where iGen’ers shine – not in traditional political action but in spreading the word about a new issue.

Elsewhere, she describes iGen as “leading the way toward more equality and acceptance.”

Let’s grant this as a descriptive matter. iGen is, in Twenge’s words, “exquisitely tolerant,” and has plausibly played an important role online in changing social attitudes—or at least in making life difficult for those whose attitudes have not yet changed. Suppose that we were to agree with Twenge in thinking that change of attitudes a good thing, and the social changes that have emerged from those attitudes as progress. Should we think it a good thing that iGen has played the role it has? Should we be pleased that they are “leading the way”?

I do not see how such sentiments could possibly be in line with the rest of the data Twenge has provided. iGen suffers intellectual and moral deficits: they are ill-informed, uninterested in pursuing relevant information, passionate without being active, afraid of debate with those who disagree, and uninterested in learning or exploration. “Hashtagging a tweet for a cause” and using social media to stigmatize those who disagree are not laudatory actions, they’re symptoms of precisely these ills.

Who should be concerned with these symptoms? Everyone. But I suggest that those who should care the most are those who agree with the substance of iGen’s views. If you are, like most iGen youth, a great supporter of LGBT acceptance and same sex marriage, they are the last people you should want as the voice of your cause, for their position is born not of study and argument but of unreasoned sentiment and intellectual torpor. These are the last grounds on which a defender of a cause—any cause—should wish them settled. Just causes should be settled by the truth, and by their defenders’ reasoned acceptance of that truth.

And this, to mention just one further issue requiring more words than I have here available, brings me to Twenge’s all-too-brief discussion “iGen’ers in the Classroom.” As she notes, college students come to the classroom with little experience reading books “or even long magazine articles.” A video of more than three minutes length is likely to tax their attention spans. What can be done to bring them to the point at which they can be intellectually informed participants in debates of national and international significance?

I have no silver bullet solution, but I worry that Twenge’s suggestions are too capitulating to iGen’s deficits: textbooks should cover less, classrooms should have more discussion, instructors should rely more on videos to capture students’ attention. Against this, I can offer only the recommendation of a colleague of mine in English who has said that a professor must sometimes “dare to be boring”. Looking back, I see that I have quoted that colleague once before in Public Discourse, in a 2009 essay marking the first anniversary of this journal, in a discussion of the requirements for reasoned “public discourse.”

The topics of education, public discourse, and politics are deeply intertwined. If Twenge’s descriptions of iGen are accurate, then the health of all three is in real jeopardy.

Christopher O. Tollefsen is College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina.

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