Move over baby boomers, Generation X and Millennials. All the fretting and worrying over you is done. The focus now is on Generation Z, or the “iGen.” These are kids and teens born between 1995 and 2012 who have never known life without the internet. They have Instagram accounts before they get into high school, and they’ve grown up using smartphones to do almost everything – schedule their lives, make friends, socialize, get information and entertain themselves.
The heavy use of smartphones has some people worried. Yes, smartphones mean we’ll never get lost – and that we’ll always be able to look up the population of Burkina Faso and find a decently rated Thai restaurant in a strange town. But they also mean constant distraction and potentially, changes in the way we think, sleep and interact socially.
So imagine what it’s like to not remember the world before smartphones. Jean Twenge, the psychologist at San Diego State who coined the label “iGen,” has pointed out that when the first iPhone came out in 2007, the oldest members of iGen were about 12. The youngest have never known life without smartphones. And while Millennials, or Generation Y, also grew up with the internet, it was never as all-consuming as it is for Generation Z.
But before starting to tsk-tsk and tut-tut, let’s remember that every new technology has always brought on a wave of alarm about what could happen to youths, and so far, every generation has made it to adulthood pretty well.
Let’s also note that iGen-ers have a lot of good things going for them. For one thing, according to a research summary by Samantha Guerry, a market strategist, Generation Z kids are whizzes at sorting information “at light speed,” thanks to their “eight-second filters.” They have so many options and so little time that they’ve become expert at handling a lot of information quickly – and at figuring out who the “trusted curators” are to help them manage the information flow.
By many accounts, Generation Z-ers are highly pragmatic and career-minded. More than past generations, they are realistic about what it takes to prepare to support themselves financially. And they are living healthier, safer lives than teenagers in the past. They drink less, smoke less, try or use drugs less frequently, and have less sex. Partying and rebellion are out. Safety and risk aversion are in.
Generation Z also is extremely tolerant. The iGen-ers grew up with diversity and gay marriage being no big deal, so being judgmental just isn’t part of their fabric. If there’s anything they disapprove of, it’s being intolerant. As Twenge says, they “are just less willing to label anything as ‘wrong.’”
But, of course, there’s a less positive side to Generation Z, and it’s a biggie: It’s that iGen-ers have much higher rates of anxiety and depression than past generations. Teen depression and suicide rates have soared since 2011, and though there are many possible reasons for this, smartphones are a key suspect. The conjecture is that always being hyper-connected affects more than sleep and concentration. It also can lead to feeling left out, isolated, and lonely.
Twenge says that more screen time clearly has been linked to more unhappiness. That doesn’t mean the causation flows from smartphones to depression – and there are other reasons for teens being stressed today, including increased competition, college admissions and the job market. But she says, according to the surveys, “There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.”
That sounds awful, and the knee-jerk reaction is to ban or at least sharply curtail smartphone use. But let’s be realistic. Smartphone use is not going away any time soon, and teens are teens. Perhaps the best we can do is stay vigilant but also keep an open mind. Yes, by all means let’s worry about teens being in their rooms alone, on their phones and possibly distressed. But let’s also accept that Generation Z has learned to use smartphones in ways that aren’t always bad – just different.