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Kids These Days: A Review Article on iGen by Jean M. Twenge

Gregory E. Reynolds

iGen: Why Today’s Super-connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, by Jean M. Twenge. New York: Atria, 2017, 342 pages, $27.00.

Here they come! Boomers think of ourselves as a dominant generation, but iGen’ers (born from 1995 to 2012) make up the largest percentage of the US population.

Dr. Jean M. Twenge’s is a detailed sociological analysis of the youngest generation to enter early adulthood with the smartphone a ubiquitous presence in their lives. This, her latest book: iGen, is an eye-opening read. While trying to refrain from value judgments—a staple conviction of her profession—she is troubled by some of the effects of the smart phone’s unique dominance in the life of this latest generation.

Just as iGen’ers began to enter the adult world in 2012, Twenge “started seeing large, abrupt shifts in teens’ behaviors and emotional states” (4). She reminds us that the first iGen’ers were born the year the Internet was born, and in 2006 Facebook opened its social network to anyone over age 13, so anyone born since 1993 has been able to spend their entire adolescence on social networking sites (5). Twenge uses “large, over-time surveys” to enable generational comparisons (8). Her explanations of the methods and assumptions of her research are very useful. She bases her research on her own extensive interviews and four important databases. The text is laced with charts, which lend credibility to her conclusions, but are not always easy to interpret.

Chapter 1 deals with the slower progress of iGen’ers toward adulthood than any previous generation. Christine Rosen aptly titled her Wall Street Journal review of iGen “An Aversion to Adulting.”[1] Not much dating, not wanting their licenses as soon as they are eligible, not working summer jobs, and not socializing or studying, all prolong the adjustment to adulthood. On the other hand not having much sex, not drinking or smoking much due to the dangers of these activities are good on the surface but are often rooted in a more intense self-orientation (42). Most importantly, “iGen doesn’t rebel against their parents’ overprotection—instead, they embrace it.” Thus, it is no surprise that this generation demands “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” (47). Twenge segues into chapter 2: “If teens are working less, spending less time on homework, going out less, and drinking less, what are they doing? For a generation called iGen, the answer is obvious: look no further than the smartphones in their hands” (47).

“They talk about their phones the way an addict would talk about crack: ‘I know I shouldn’t, but I just can’t help it,’ one said about looking at her phone while in bed” (50). Since nearly all leisure hours are spent with new media this is their main environment (51). Tremendous psychological pressure is put on teens to present a positive self on social media. Seeking affirmation is addictive and also unrealistic in terms of what is actually going in in the lives of teens (55–57). Absorption with new media also means that reading for pleasure is almost non-existent among iGen’ers. Twenge astutely points out that statistics that show iGen’ers reading more than older people are skewed by the fact that the majority of the reading of iGen’ers is for school assignments (60). She may be too pessimistic about the demise of the book, but the trend is not encouraging. And the results of this decline with this particular generation are disturbing:

Apparently, texting and posting on social media instead of reading books, magazines, and newspapers are not a boon for reading comprehension or academic writing. That might partially be due to the short attention span that new media seem to encourage. (64)

Consequently, SAT scores are dramatically declining (63).

Chapter 3 explores another negative effect of the new media on iGen’ers: a dramatic decline in personal presence. The subtitle to Twenge’s chapter tells it all: “I’m with you, but only virtually” (69). She notes that the recent severe drop in teen socialization is coincident with the rise of the smartphone (72–73). One of the darkest consequences is that “teens who spend more time on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy” (77). This result coincides with an ironic reversal: “The astonishing, though tentative, possibility is that the rise of the smartphone has caused both the decline in homicide and the increase in suicide” (87).

The impossibility of eliminating value judgments by sociologists—something Peter Berger pointed out a generation ago in A Rumor of Angels[2]—reveals itself in Twenge’s observation: “All in all, in-person social interaction is much better for mental health than electronic communication” (88). This is, or course, not a novel observation in light of the discipline of media ecology. Twenge mentions no media critics in her index. So the value of her comments on electronic media lies in the empirical and statistical research that confirms what media ecologists like Marshal McLuhan and Neil Postman, among a host of others, have been saying for a generation.

In chapter 4 Twenge expands on the mental health effects of the lack of face-to-face communication among iGen’ers; but now she calls it a crisis (95). Loneliness and depression are on the rise. The deception of the online happy persona exacerbates the problem. Again she links the sharp rise in mental health problems with the advent of smartphones: they “became ubiquitous and in-person interaction plummeted” (104). Depression is also a primary factor in suicide, which is on the rise among high school and college teens.

Between 2009 and 2015 the number of high school girls who seriously considered suicide in the past year increased 34%, and the number who attempted suicide increased 43%. The number of college students who seriously considered suicide jumped 60% between 2011 and 2016. (110)

While other causes may be part of this “heartbreaking” increase, Twenge is highly suspicious of the coincident appearance of the smartphone with the doubling of teenage suicide (110). New media screen time seems to be the “worm at the core of the apple” (112). Smartphones also appear to be harming sleep for iGen’ers (113–17).

Chapter 5 on the religion of iGen’ers is no more encouraging. Fewer young people are affiliating with any religion: “iGen’ers came of age in an era when disavowing religious beliefs became strikingly more socially acceptable” (122). Many more are now raised in nonreligious homes. By 2016 one in three 18- to 24-year-olds said they did not believe in God, and one in four said that they did not believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God (126–27). “Overall, iGen is, with near certainty, the least religious generation in US history” (128). Even in non-institutional beliefs, like prayer or the existence of God, iGen is less religious (132).

Twenge correctly observes that the rise of individualism is in lock step with the decline in religion. She refers to Christian sociologist Christian Smith’s observation that even religious teens have a more individualistic conception of their faith (138). They often do not share their church’s views on science, pop culture, and sexuality (139). She notes that few youth pastors address these issues (139). She then recommends that:

Religious organizations should focus on active discussions with iGen’ers that address the “big questions” they have about life, love, God, and meaning. Kinnaman found that 36% of young adults from a Christian background said that they didn’t feel they could “ask my most pressing life questions in church.” (141)

Needless to say, this should never be a problem in Reformed churches with our rich theological heritage. Interestingly Twenge concludes this chapter:

Evangelical churches have not lost as many members over the last few decades as other Christian denominations have. That might be because they’ve recognized that iGen’ers and Millennials want religion to complete them—to strengthen their relationships and give them a sense of purpose. (142)

She believes that even these churches will loosen their views on premarital sex, same-sex marriage, and transgender individuals (142).

Chapter 6 is safety first. This is the first generation of teens who are not risk takers. Physical safety is just the beginning of the concern; reputation, intellectual, and emotional risks come a close second. It seems that their fragility warrants the name “Generation Snowflake” (154). They are the ultimate victim generation (159). As it turns out this may not be good for their mental health (162). Extending childhood is not a good idea. Because then the security of money becomes more important than meaning (167). The high living of the advertising world becomes a goal.

Chapter 7 explores the importance of income security to iGen. Their work ethic is a high priority, not because of the intrinsic meaningfulness of the work, but because of the security of income. Money, not meaning, is the goal (196).

Chapters 8 and 9 deal with family, sex, gender, and race. For iGen’ers growing up more slowly means relationships come much later. Sexual activity is down. Commitment threatens safety. Pornography is stealing the importance of a lifelong relationship. Relationships are stressful. Digital is much easier (215). The new media make intimacy fearful. The individualism cultivated by the smartphone undermines traditional marriage and family in radical ways. So singleness has become a way of life for a large number of iGen’ers (221). Twenge concludes that with fewer young adults having sex or committed relationships, “The United States will increasingly resemble Europe” (226).

iGen’ers assume that all races and gender identities are created equal and are appalled when they encounter views to the contrary (227). The decision to be what you wish is deeply rooted in iGen’ers’ individualism (230). “Even religious teens embrace same-sex marriage” (231). Psychology classes in the public system implant the idea that gender choices hurt no one (235). This, of course, is not true, when the larger picture of relationships is taken into account. Twenge assumes that gender equality and fluidity is a positive development, betraying her value-neutral position as a sociologist (238).

Racially iGen’ers think of integration as acceptable instead of desirable. She concludes, however, that this is due to their assumption of racial diversity, rather than opposition to it (245–46). This tolerance, however, has a downside: “40% of Millennials and iGen’ers agreed that the government should be able to prevent people from making offensive statements about minority groups” (250). Hence the trend toward disinviting campus speakers that offend the sensibilities of students. Twenge once again steps outside of the sociological neutral stance by disapproving of these speech restrictions.

Chapter 10 is a fascinating exploration of why iGen’ers voted for both socialist Sanders and nationalist Trump: radical individualism. iGen’ers have stepped outside party lines. Government “should stay out of people’s private business” (266). The iGen’ers “take the individualist mindset for granted” (275). But for all their Libertarian instincts they do not believe that political involvement, including voting, makes a difference (284).

In her conclusion, “Understanding and Saving—iGen,” Twenge encourages more face-to-face interaction and less smartphone use. “Life is better offline, and even iGen’ers know it” (294). She counsels more parental involvement (297–98) and exercise (300). Facing adult realities before leaving home is an obvious piece of advice. Learning how to evaluate evidence is also sage counsel. In the end Twenge fails to point to transcendent reality to ground her advice, much of which is worthwhile. The triune God and his revelation in Scripture is the ultimate grounding for navigating modernity.

Whatever iGen’ers think about gender, race, vocation, or religion, God is in control of history and they are made in his image; no amount of genetic engineering or propaganda can change that. Furthermore, I know many Christian and a few non-Christian iGen’ers, who simply do not fit the profile of Twenge’s research conclusions.

While we need to be careful not to pigeon-hole iGen’ers with Twenge’s conclusions, there is enough evidence to cause great concern for the rising generation of young people. Christian parents and church officers have a great responsibility to educate young people on the reasons why we believe certain things and reject other ideas, like evolution and same-sex marriage. Along with this, genuine love for our unbelieving neighbors needs to replace the often judgmental spirit with which we communicate our faith. Or as David Kinnaman says, “We have become famous for what we oppose rather than what we are for” (140). God’s amazing grace in the true man Jesus Christ must, therefore, take center stage.

Endnotes

[1] Christine Rosen, “An Aversion to Adulting,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 23, 2017.

[2] Peter L. Berger, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969).

Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, January 2018.

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