While Millennials continue to capture most of the headlines, we are just now starting to understand the next generation. Early reports are worrisome. The Atlantic just published an article about an extensive study on what is now called the Igeneration and how it compares to previous generations. They found that teenagers of this generation (born between 1996 and 2010) are delaying independence and therefore avoiding many of the risks that other generations fell prey to such as alcohol and drug abuse. Yet, they are also experiencing an increase in depression and suicide rates. In short, adolescents are both safer and lonelier. This is a paradigm we will have to grapple with for years to come.
According to the article, the single defining trait of this generation is technology. They are the first ones to grow up with smart phones. Many spend hours on their phone and fifty percent say they are addicted to it. This trend has had devastating effects most of which is amplifying the sense of being left. In fact, according to the study, phone usage had an inverse relationship with happiness. That is, the less you use your phone, the happier the teenagers reported they felt.
Leaving the pernicious effects of social media aside, I want to focus on the smart phone itself. Its very existence has fundamentally changed how teenagers perceive the world around them.
The Gap Between Generations
Children are like sponges. They have a unique capacity to absorb the world around them in ways adults no longer can. Their minds are malleable by all the stimuli around them. The biggest tragedy of children growing up in front of a screen is that they start losing the ability to differentiate the virtual world from the real one. Even if they cognitively understand the difference, they may still consider the virtual world as essential to their life. The snapchat profile is no longer an avatar but becomes an integral part of their identify. Their day-to-day experience, good and bad, gets amplified. If now teenagers can attain instant fame, they can also experience the devastating effects of cyber bullying. It is one thing to be teased before a small group of peers in school. It is a whole other matter when the teasing happens at millions of screen worldwide.
Now, it would be unfair to say that only teenagers are struggling to limit their smart phone usage. Many adults, including the one typing, have a tendency to check the phone many times throughout the day. However, adults like myself had the advantage of growing up in an offline world. Call me old-school but there is no online experience that can match the satisfaction I get from reading a book. Because of this perspective, I wonder if we adults are underestimating the effects of introducing these devices so early in our children’s development.
As a parent of 7 and a 5 year-old, controlling their screen time is a constant source of worry if not obsession to both me and my wife. I can’t even imagine how the struggle will be as they get older and their peers start coming to school with smart phones. While I can delay it for a few years, I have to accept that our kids simply live in a different world than the one we grew up in. While limiting screen time is a good step, I think the bigger challenge is teaching them to make good choices when we are not present. Essentially, we need to impress on our children that the analog world is vastly richer than the digital representation they see on screens.
Real Versus Virtual
How do we teach a new generation to discern what is real from what is not? In past blogs, I have talked about preparing the next generation through education. Nevertheless, this is not enough. At the heart of this crisis is changing how we and our children approach technology altogether. If we are to help them discern reality outside of their phone screens we must first help them approach the technology they use wisely. That means helping them understand when it is time to put the screen down on their own.
I am encouraged when I see that my kids drop everything at the invitation to go to the pool. This tells me that while they enjoy their screens, they are still no match to the real experience of chlorine-full water splashing through their bodies. In the same way, my prayer for the Igeneration is that they learn that seeing someone face-to-face will always beat a video-conference interaction and that running in the woods will always be superior to any VR game they play.
The best way to help with that is being conduits of analog experiences that will blow away the digital ones. The gift of undivided attention, the warmth of a hug, the encouragement from words of affirmation are just a few examples of experiences that are best delivered in person than digitally.
If you see someone from the igen today, ask them to put down their phone and give them a hug.