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Are We Going to Allow Smartphones to Destroy a Generation?

The iGen Problem

Many people recently sent me the same article from the current issue of The Atlantic. It’s titled, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”, and it’s written by Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University.

The article describes Twenge’s research on iGen, her name for kids born between 1995 and 2012 — the first generation to grow up with smartphones. Here’s a short summary of her alarming conclusions:

“It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

I won’t bother describing all of Twenge’s findings here. If you’re interested, read the original article, or her new book on the topic, which comes out this week.

The point I want to make instead is that in my position as someone who researches and writes on related topics,  I’ve started to hear this same note of serious alarm from multiple different reputable sources — including the head of a well-known university’s mental health program, and a reporter currently bird-dogging the topic for a major national publication.

In other words, I don’t think this growing concern about the mental health impact of smartphones on young people is simply nostalgia-tinged, inter-generational ribbing.

Something really scary is probably going on.

My prediction is that we’re going to see a change in the next 2 – 5 years surrounding how parents think about the role of smartphones in their kids’ lives. There will be a shift from shrugging our shoulders and saying “what can we do?”, to squaring our shoulders and asking with more authority, “what are we going to do?”

(Photo by Pabak Sarkar)

55 thoughts on “Are We Going to Allow Smartphones to Destroy a Generation?”

  1. Do you know of any studies showing similar relationships between mental health & smartphones for adults (born before 1995)? I also wonder whether it’s the smartphone, or the social media on the smartphone that’s responsible.

      • Indeed. I use social media but have taken most apps off my smartphone. I do use my phone a lot for making notes in Evernote/Todoist, listening to podcasts etc, but I suspect it’s not what most people do. Perhaps RescueTime (app that tracks which apps you are using) has some neat statistics on this.

  2. My friends, this weekend, tried to persuade me to embrace a smartphone, lauding all the ways I could benefit from it, and repeating “you really do need one.”

    My response: “Why?”

    This question disturbs people.
    I don’t need a smartphone. I am missing nothing in my life by not having one. However, I find that my lack of a smartphone distances me from my friends, not because they cannot contact me, but because I am not doing what everyone else is doing.

    I think I need better friends, not a new smartphone, if that is what is important to them.

    And I’m not a teenager: I’m a PhD researcher/early career academic. This pressure is extremely strong upon young adults, even those born before 1995. Again, I ask “why” and have never received a satisfactory answer.

    • You don’t “need” a smartphone. It’s convenient to have one. Sometimes. Google/Apple Maps (for driving). Moovit (for public transportation). Spot hero (for booking affordable parking space online). Yelp, Foursquare (for reviews of places from locals) – you can also use this via a PC or Mac but the smartphone provides instant information for unknown territory. Lyft (or Uber). Things like this. Of course, you don’t need one. But it makes life easier for you. I think it’s not a huge deal. Unless you go crazy and live with it 7/24. It’s pretty addictive.

      • You can get around places just fine by relying on people. Its a “forgotten art”. Nobody even bothers to look at a passerby nowadays which is so surprising. I more or less relied on asking passerbys to get to places. It worked perfect!

      • I find it helpful for downloading podcasts and listening to them when I walk/drive around. It’s also extremely helpful for coordinating plans with friends. You’re right about how addictive they are however. It’s amazing how down I can feel when I don’t get a buzz from my smartphone (when I’m not totally engrossed in something else — like deep work? — anyway).

        I’m assuming most people have seen this already, and I know this video is more targeted at Millenials than the iGeners, but Simon Sinek has some extremely perceptive comments to make about the role of smartphones and the deterioration of our ability to interact with each other: (It’s called “Simon Sinek on Millenials in the Workplace” if the link doesn’t work.)

        • Try disabling notifications as step 1 – you will check the apps yourself often, but it will get better with step 2 – move the apps around on your phone or put them in a folder called “don’t use unless it’s an emergency” 🙂

    • I don’t have a smartphone, but my husband does. I do like to have it when we are looking for directions, but we often look those up ahead of time just to be sure.

      I find that the inconvenience and occasional boredom is very good for me.

    • Esther, I would echo what you say here. Very interesting the emotional strength of pushback I sense when I resist others, of various ages, urging me to get on Whatsapp or use Uber…

  3. I think Cal is going to write a book with some strategies for subduing the mental health issues linked to smartphone use. Hopefully he will also paint a very persuasive portrait of an incredibly different “deep” lifestyle as he has done in his previous books. I, for one, am very excited for this new book!

  4. For an interesting take on this, watch the episode of the series of Black Mirror that is about likes and rating people, where your whole life depends on how high your rating it. Very interesting and scary. I am not sure about the name of the episode, let me know if you can’t find it. The whole series is very good btw.

  5. While I don’t disagree that too much phone use is bad, and I absolutely believe that Facebook is a waste of time, I think it’s a bit overblown. Every generation has a new thing that the previous generation thinks will destroy them. For God sake, people used to think bicycles and radios were a scourge upon humanity. I’m guessing in twenty years there will be another invention that makes us yearn for the good old days of our simple, innocent smartphones.

  6. But how does it compare with the madness caused by masturbation, reefers, negro music, comic books, violent Hanna Barbara cartoons, dishonest Sea Monkey ads in comic books, sugar sweetened cereals,…?

    • The big difference this time around is the data…

      Every generation has complaints about the next generation — some new fad that’s supposed to be their ruin, but that never shows up in the data.

      What makes the smartphone/iGen thing different is that the quantitative data tracking mental health is off the charts — unlike anything researchers have ever seen before, even after following trends for multiple different generations. This is what seems to be new here, the cool-headed experts — those who are first to push back faddish complaints and theories — seem, at least to me, worried in a way I haven’t seen before.

      • Cal, I would be very interested to know how you are managing & will manage your own kids’ electronics experiences: TV, computer, pad, smartphone, etc.

    • I have noticed a few people trying to simply generalize the issues mentioned in the article by relating to the past fears of former generations. While I accept the fact that they are trying to seem clever using this method of simplification, they are simply ignoring the current topic completely. Although I often find when these people agree with something deep down that is against their way of life they will simply generalize all issues to some base level.

      Speaker 1 proposal: Let us discuss how ‘xyz’ could potential harm the mental health of an individual

      Speaker 2 response: Any ‘thing’ can potentially harm the mental health of an individual so your claim regarding ‘xyz’ is trivial, irrelevant and pointless.

      anyways…enjoying your ideas and will be purchasing your book soon!

  7. Hello Cal,
    I am born in 1998 and would be considered apart of this generation discussed in this blog post. I have read your book Deep Work, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, and I am going to read So Good They Can’t Ignore You as well. I have changed my ways drastically after coming across all this research and insight in various places but mainly in your book. I am about to start my freshman year of college and feel well prepared with this new way of life. I was just curious how do you use your smartphone and or internet websites like Youtube? I have no social media or a youtube account anymore, just an e-mail and a work e-mail. It has drastically helped my attention span and ability to focus and do deep work.

    • To answer your questions: I don’t use my smartphone much — mainly to help route around DC traffic or text my wife — and spend very little time browsing web sites for entertainment (an exception, of course, is MLB news at certain key points in the season). I don’t have a ton of downtime (two kids under 5 and a habit to write books as a “hobby” sees to that), but when I do, I spend time with my family, and when they’re not around, I read, listen to baseball on the radio, or go for “thinking walks.”

      Here’s the thing: I’m fine! Nothing bad happens if you opt out of the worst excesses of the attention economy. I encourage to keep asking critical questions along these lines…

      • Cal,

        On your thinking walks, do you find yourself being able to hold long unbroken trains of thought on a particular matter? I find that on my thinking walks or on my silent commutes without anything playing on the car stereo, my trains of thought are very unstructured. My mind chatters around all over the place and I can’t seem to mull over any one thing for more than a few minutes.

  8. The psychological ramifications are above my pay grade. I can tell you that we did not allow any phone (at all) till our son was 18. Only when he was on his way to London for University did we then all agree that a phone was necessary!
    Sound weird? Well, we don’t watch TV either. Maybe that was why it was all so easy and he is now so mature and happy. Remember TV? That was supposed to ruin a generation too. (And yes, it did! )

    • Thanks for the words for encouragement. But, what you have done with your son is a great accomplishment and it is for a way longer duration of time. About a month ago, I came across Cal’s books from a youtube video recommending them and it has changed my life in addition to what I have been changing in my life as well. I hope your son has reaped the benefits of your parenting and in this day and age it is quite sad how most allow themselves to dwell in the Shallows.

  9. I don’t own a smart phone either. I think they have also hijacked physical health. The blue light is damaging, especially to sound sleep.

    This addiction promotes excessive sitting–hence obesity and other diseases. It’s a relationship killer too–so indirectly linked to ill health. I could go on….I think the Dick Tracy phones are especially ridiculous.

  10. Is there any credence to the idea of having a smartphone and a “dumb” phone that you use for different periods?

    For example, during the day, say from 7 AM to 6 PM you just carry around the dumb phone. Then at night you switch to your smartphone to do whatever you would do with the smartphone.

    That way you don’t have to completely give it all up.

    Of course there would be a problem with dual phone numbers, but perhaps you can just train your business contacts to use your dumb phone #, and your friends to use the smartphone number. In case of emergency (perhaps once or twice a year) your close family and friends would know to call your dumb phone.

    I might do this. Looking on Amazon now for prepaid phones 🙂

  11. Brilliant post Cal. Your talks/books have just changed the course of the way i look at work/habits/career and daily routine. Thanks a lot!

  12. Recently I listened through the lectures, all excellent, of the Great Courses’ “The Black Death,” about the catastrophic plagues of the Middle Ages. Boom, half or even all of your village is wiped out. This is how I feel when I spend time with many of my friends and their kids, including small children, all glued to, or constantly returning to, their ding-ding-dinging screens. So many of them are just…. not really here anymore.

  13. Hi Cal. Once again, nice posting. I do love what you wrote here.

    My points:
    1. Be careful when letting our child use smartphone to solve their business. Be sure we still have our presence besides them.
    2. Dont ever let smartphone beat your physical touch/real voice communication to your chlidren. Otherwise, it will diminish our emotional bond with them.

  14. I am currently writing a paper on how digitalization is changing our concepts of identity. In this context I find Sherry Turkle’s book “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age” very interesting. She has also come to the point in her academic work that a point is reached where actions need to be taken and more and more people are willing to also see the negative.
    Alongside with other publications (e.g. German neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer or Adam alter: Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked)) I am slowly coming to the conclusion: there need to be concepts to learn to use these tools wisely and moderately. Total abstinance is difficult in today work life.

  15. The great danger with Smartphone, iPad, computer games use with children is that they become “addicted” to the instant “high” produced by stimulus from an interactive video. Those hours of high mental stimulation simply cannot compete with the slower pace of real life processes. As a consequence, we will be seeing more diagnosis of ADHD and depression due to the brain conditioning electronic interactive media does to our children.
    As a pianist and electronic music composer, I grew up learning that happiness requires a foundation that takes time, effort, and applying one’s intelligence to a challenging activity that has its “high” reward only after putting in the time and effort. Today’s youth are being mentally conditioned to expect instant results while the world’s problems clearly require long term thought out solutions. They will not be mentally equipped to run the world as adults.

  16. I lived near a state university with 24,000 students, and I can’t help but notice how fixated many are on their smartphones. But I think researchers need to explore a distinction. Is what they’re doing bad or is it simply bad because it keeps them from doing something better?

    I saw that when I was walking on campus last year and passed a bench with four students who were apparently friends. They weren’t talking to one another. Each was busy on his or her phone. They were missing out of what’s learned from face-to-face interaction. Do that a little, and it matters little. Do that a lot and it matters a lot.

    –Michael W. Perry, medical writer

  17. Every advancement comes with setbacks. Now, that doesn’t mean we should allow ourselves to be swept away by technological prowess, and we also shouldn’t fully resist it either.

    The challenging part is learning how to strike that balance between risk/reward. Personally, I think children shouldn’t have smartphones – they should have the old flip phones with limited games so they can be reached in an emergency.

    We’re uploading our brains directly to the collective hard drive and while that’s certainly the “way of the future”, I fear it spells the doom of human nature.

    • I agree with this idea that powerful new technologies usually begin with a phase of unrestricted use, and we then figure out with time how better to manage them.

      I think your suggestion that young people be provided dumb phones (allowing them, for example, to text their parents when they need a ride) instead of smartphones is a cultural constraint we may see grow in popularity.

  18. I highly encourage people to read Sherry Turkel’s “Reclaiming Conversation”, as so many of the sentiments from the comment section above echo her MIT research. My favorite paraphrase is: ” If you grow up not knowing how to spend time alone….then loneliness is the only emotion you will ever know.”

    Full disclosure-I do not know Turkel and have no financial relationship with her or her books. GT

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  20. Serious question but off topic. How do you get really good at explaining new concepts? I notice your Texas presentation on active recall where you explained that active recall is the most effective way to learn. Top students study effectively by explaining, using complete sentences. But how do you develop that? How do you practice explanation? Or just simply explaining concepts as a practice? As I’m writing this, the answer is becoming more apparent that I already know the answer but maybe you know something else.


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