Friday 23 August 2019

The generational divide is bigger than ever

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A few weeks ago in this column, I wrote about a British study that identified high levels of unhappiness and anxiety in young girls based on a recent large scale study. The authors speculated as to why this was so, since girls seem on the surface to be so confident. While the study could not answer this, there was speculation around the spreading tentacles of i-technology.

A Professor of Psychology, Jean Twenge of the Department of Psychology at San Diego University, is in little doubt about this. Her recent book, iGen: "Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy - and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood - and What That Means for the Rest of Us", considers this question. Her metier is the study of behaviour in different generations - she has previously written about baby-boomers, millennials and now the iGen, referring to those born between 1995 and 2012.

She analysed data from a four major US studies of this generation. The measures included psychological symptoms, the use of i-technology, how leisure time is spent and so on. It is tempting to think that the characteristics of any generation identified by such studies will either decrease, or increase slightly with each generation as change takes place - for better or worse - and this is the usual pattern. But when she examined the trends in these studies the graphs showed seismic shifts around 2012 with major troughs and peaks compared to the gentle change anticipated.

She wrote: "In all my analyses of generational data - some reaching back to the 1930s - I had never seen anything like it". She points out that the iPhone was introduced, in 2007, and that the iGen were high-school students when the iPad entered the scene, in 2010. The interest in itechnology kept growing and a 2017 survey of more than 5,000 American teens found that three out of four owned an iPhone.

According to her thesis, this generation unlike others has grown up with ubiquitous smartphones, iPads, Snapchat and Twitter. There have more access to itechnology than any other generation before them. She would say this is at saturation point.

Twenge says teenagers spend an average of six hours on the internet each day, get their driver's licenses later, fewer have weekend jobs, they are disengaging from religion and even from "spirituality", they date less, have sex less and rebel against their parents' authority later, if at all. They also interact far less with their peers in face-to-face contact than the previous generation did. They seem more comfortable with this and use texts and "Snapstreams" to confide rather than doing so during sleepovers or in coffee shops, as in the past. She finds them to be more individualistic that previous generations although she points out that this approach to morality has been increasing steadily since the baby-boomers.

She contends that individualisation lead to parents cossetting the children more, because nobody else will. Conversely, in highly collectivised cultures people look out for each other and for children in particular, because of feeling a social responsibility to do so.

The result is that they remain at home for longer, don't have weekend jobs or learn to drive until later simply because parenting has changed. And with current technologies they are enabled to fill this extra time in virtual "contact" with friends through the ever expanding varieties of social media. The consequence of this is not that the iGen is closer to their parents, they are simply in a state of socially-driven dependence. And modern technology facilitates them in filling their spare time albeit remote from face-to-face contact.

While Professor Twenge states that these new technologies are creating unprecedented change in young people's behaviour and that they are maturing more slowly, she also finds some positive outcomes. They have a greater tolerance, less likelihood of engaging in early sex or becoming pregnant, and teen drug use in decline, at least in the US which this book relates to.

Her final thesis is that today's iGen is on the cusp of "the most severe mental health crisis for young people in decades".

This apocalyptic prediction is due to smartphones, and such like, replacing face-to-face contact with others and increasing loneliness and isolation, according to her. This is a frightening prospect and we should hope that she is wrong.

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