Saturday, August 5, 2017

Indicting Steve Jobs

Everyone is talking about Jean Twenge’s Atlantic article, so I feel obliged to join the chorus. Twenge counts as one of the best of the younger generation of social psychologists, so I am always happy to read her writings. And yet, for me to offer commentary about smart phones and post-millennial adolescents feels like a bit of a stretch. After all, I do not own a smart phone and do not work with adolescents.

To summarize Twenge’s argument: she offers an extensive indictment of the smartphone, that is of Steve Jobs. The young generation, which she calls the iGen, has gotten addicted to smartphones and this is ruining their mental health. This post-millennial generation lives for telephonic interactions and thus spends less time interacting with real human beings. Its members also spend less time on their schoolwork and less time in part time jobs.

You might know that I have always questioned the notion that the media is destroying our minds. When something goes wrong we tend to blame it on television, magazines, newspapers… and we set out to control their content, the better to restore mental health and well-being. Now, according to Twenge, the fault is not in the content, and it is not in the media barons who are supposedly controlling everyone’s minds. It’s the gadget itself, an instrument for connecting teenagers while not really connecting them.

As it happened, I already addressed the fact that millennial men seem happier to be playing videogames in their parents’basements than going out to find jobs. When I did so I emphasized a point made by Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, namely that children and young people around the world have the same access to video games. Are young people in Shanghai or Singapore or Seoul or London suffering the same negative effects of these games? Or is there something intrinsically American about the way young people use or abuse the games. The same applies to iPhones.

Before bringing Steve Jobs before the docket, we would want to know whether smartphones are producing the same psychological crisis in other nations around the world. This feels like an easy control experiment, yet Twenge does not say anything about it. If other members of iGen in other countries are not being similarly destroyed by smartphones, we are talking about a correlation, not a causation.

Or else, you might ask whether American children raised by Tiger Moms, or by parents who are present in their lives, who are not distracted by their own careers, show the same signs of psychological distress, the same failure to do schoolwork or to get jobs. In her article, Twenge does not differentiate among the different American subcultures.

Without further ado, and with these caveats firmly in mind, here is Twenge’s case against Steve Jobs:

Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs, and many of the distinctive characteristics of the Millennial generation began to disappear. In all my analyses of generational data—some reaching back to the 1930s—I had never seen anything like it.

The post-millennial generation, iGen counts those who were born between 1995 and 2012. The presidents it has known were George W. Bush and Barack Obama. And yet, members of this generation began reaching adolescence during the Obama years. Could there be a connection between the nation’s mental health and the Obama presidency? Is there a correlation or a causation?

Twenge continues:

The more I pored over yearly surveys of teen attitudes and behaviors, and the more I talked with young people like Athena, the clearer it became that theirs is a generation shaped by the smartphone and by the concomitant rise of social media. I call them iGen. Born between 1995 and 2012, members of this generation are growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet. The Millennials grew up with the web as well, but it wasn’t ever-present in their lives, at hand at all times, day and night. iGen’s oldest members were early adolescents when the iPhone was introduced, in 2007, and high-school students when the iPad entered the scene, in 2010. A 2017 survey of more than 5,000 American teens found that three out of four owned an iPhone.

What has Steve Jobs done to the iGen:

The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.

What effects has this gadget produced? Twenge explains:

Some generational changes are positive, some are negative, and many are both. More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party, today’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been. They’re markedly less likely to get into a car accident and, having less of a taste for alcohol than their predecessors, are less susceptible to drinking’s attendant ills.

Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. 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.

Of course, we do not know about the quality of the relationships these children had with, for example, their parents. Is the iPhone a default mechanism for children who have been abandoned by their parents? Or does it cause them to detach and disconnect from actively engaged parents? Without having any real evidence, I would guess that parents are more often disengaged from their children and that children use the iPhone as a default. I know that some parents helicopter their children, that is, hover over them and keep track of their every twitch, but this is merely the other side of the detachment coin. It does not establish an effective parent-child relationship.

Twenge documents the deterioration of children’s mental health and well being:

In the late 1970s, 77 percent of high-school seniors worked for pay during the school year; by the mid-2010s, only 55 percent did. The number of eighth-graders who work for pay has been cut in half. These declines accelerated during the Great Recession, but teen employment has not bounced back, even though job availability has.

Today’s teenagers are not embracing the challenges of adulthood. Twenge suggests that Steve Jobs made them into a generation of slugs:

Why are today’s teens waiting longer to take on both the responsibilities and the pleasures of adulthood? Shifts in the economy, and parenting, certainly play a role. In an information economy that rewards higher education more than early work history, parents may be inclined to encourage their kids to stay home and study rather than to get a part-time job. Teens, in turn, seem to be content with this homebody arrangement—not because they’re so studious, but because their social life is lived on their phone. They don’t need to leave home to spend time with their friends….

If today’s teens were a generation of grinds, we’d see that in the data. But eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-graders in the 2010s actually spend less time on homework than Gen X teens did in the early 1990s. 

As it happens, it is easy to solve the problem. Children who spend less time with their screens are happier than those who spend more time with them:

Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy.

What happens when children do not talk to each other, but mostly write to each other. They do not not develop social skills and have no real sense of how to interact with other human beings:

Adolescence is a key time for developing social skills; as teens spend less time with their friends face-to-face, they have fewer opportunities to practice them. In the next decade, we may see more adults who know just the right emoji for a situation, but not the right facial expression.


Ares Olympus said...

I also seem to be one of the few people I know without a smart phone, can't imagine why anyone would take a selfie. Besides kids, I've definitely noticed riding the bus over the last 10 years that now perhaps 2/3 of people are thumbing around on their phone, while there are still plenty of people with paper books in hand. Actually the only reason I have now to get a smart phone is an app that can tell me if I've missed my bus.

I talked to a local elementary school teacher friend who claimed kids are not allowed to have smart phones in class, which gave me some hope for the future.

I'm fully willing to accept that people who use smart phones less are happier, and we can pretend it is a simple will power problem, but surely the solution must be that our distracting "tools" like smart phones need to offer self-moderated lockout features when we need to direct our attention elsewhere, like driving. Of course "off" would seem to be such a feature, but it would seem to have to be something that has a "cost" to unlocking, like a 60 second delay perhaps?

I've also noticed how smart phones seem to be replacing people's memories, so people no longer memorize phone numbers or addresses or events. Everything is stories on the phone, so if the phone is forgotten at home, your life is put on hold apparently. I do think its nice to be of a generation before computers or the internet, but it is scary for me to imagine living in that old fashioned world of immediate real experiences. Its a brave new world of some sort, even if we ignore big brother is also watching us.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

I enjoyed this post, and read it on my iPhone. I'm typing on my iPhone now...

The Glowing Box requires limits and boundaries, lest we view the pixelated mirage as a window to humanity. There's no problem with it if it has a productive purpose or acts as a temporary diversion or mode of entertainment. But Twenge is pointing to something more sinister: the Glowing Box as an alternative to reality and meaningful social interaction.

The biggest problem with the way young people are using their smartphones is an almost B.F. Skinner-like stimulus-response. It seems the problem is instant gratification, or at least the inability to defer it.

The smartphone is a tool. I don't blame Steve Jobs any more than I do Robert Oppenheimer, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford or Walt Disney. Their technologies and amusements were transformational. It is our modern abdication of personal responsibility that is causing so much pain. It's always someone else's fault. We're scared of other people, terrified of rejection, and prone to self-absorption. The Glowing Box can be used prudently, or it can become a vending machine for the all the negativity that belies the human condition. It's a choice.

What does it mean to live a good life? The Glowing Box is never going to provide the answer, nor be it. We are social creatures who perish without social interaction and touch. A text message or touch screen aren't the same thing. I'm concerned that this is news to people. You don't leave the cookie jar out in the open, you don't eat hot dogs for every meal, not every day is Halloween, and a wise man doesn't read all day long. Perhaps some do, but we would all be concerned about them. I repeat: the smartphone is a tool. We should treat it as such. What Twenge is describing is addiction.

The same should be said for organized activities. They should be balanced with space, free time, pickup games, etc. not all of life should be programmed, not every minute of a child's life needs to be scheduled. We live amidst so much anxiety. No wonder kids tune out.

David Foster said...

IAC..."The same should be said for organized activities. They should be balanced with space, free time, pickup games, etc. not all of life should be programmed, not every minute of a child's life needs to be scheduled."

There was a very sad article on LinkedIn (very rare to see anything worthwhile there) about elderly people who have never been able to get to know their grandchildren because the kids' lives are so ridiculously overscheduled. No doubt with the objective of getting the kids to achieve the most important goal known to humanity, getting into Harvard.

David Foster said...

I don't think there's any question that changes in technology...especially communications technology...have an impact on how people see the world. When the telegraph was first announced, a journalist remarked that 'there's no ELSEWHERE's all HERE.' But if wired technology reduced the sense of *elsewhere*, it seems that wireless technology reduces the sense of the *here and now*.

Still, I'm not convinced that iPhones, etc, are responsible for all or even most of the bad generational phenomena that the article discusses. The sense of declining economic opportunity surely plays a role, as does the fact that throughout the entire lives of these kids: (1) teachers, professors, and the media have constantly demonized our entire society, and (2) 'elites' in fields ranging from politics to academia to sports to banking have demonstrated their unworthiness.

Re the impact of technology on perception and culture, see my post Duz Web Mak Us Dumr?

LS said...

I think more fault lies with the parents than Steve Jobs.
I wouldn't give my teenager a cell phone unless they could afford it, and even then, with certain conditions.