Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it. Proverbs 22:6

 In researching my last post, I came across an intriguing article by a psychologist writing in Atlantic Magazine entitled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”.  The article by Jean Twenge, a PhD in Psychology, covers several topics I have already written about including the impact of the digital world on the next generation. See my posts entitled Digital Darkside (March 6, 2017) and Loneliness (July 4, 2017).

This article, however, takes it even further, and suggests that the current Generation Z is headed down a one-way street when it comes to smartphone usage.  The article interviews several from Generation Z (those who are just now getting out of high school, and who have always known a world with Smartphones).

The iPhone was introduced on June 29, 2007, just 10 years ago.  It is so pervasive now, that it is hard to imagine life before this technology. As a footnote, even Steven Jobs limited his children’s use of his own invention.

I find it interesting that these issues are now getting national attention. I saw a news story on television recently, and am glad this is getting more broad coverage than niche magazines like Psychology Today.

The subtitle of the Article is riveting: “More comfortable online than out partying, post-millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But, they’re on the verge of a mental health crises.

Trips to the Mall, once a staple of adolescents, is being replaced with spending time together with friends on the internet, using platforms like Snapchat, unchaperoned. They keep up with “Snapstreaks” which keeps track of how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with others.

One girl aged 11 put it this way: “That’s just the way her generation is, she said. ‘We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people’.”

The author has studied generational trends for 25 years, and notes that most trends are slow in developing. Until now.

“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.”

Twenge was trying to identify the reason for the sudden shift. She believes it occurred in 2012, in the middle of a poor economy from the last recession. 2012 was the year that the number of smartphones owned by Americans exceeded 50 percent. In 2017, three out of four American teens owned a smartphone. She calls these adolescents who have only known smartphones “iGen” which is like “Gen iY” coined by Tim Elmore.

The advent of the smartphone goes far beyond concerns of reduced attention spans. She notes that the impact of these devises “has not been fully appreciated.” “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 are pervasive – in every corner of the nation. It is not limited by boundaries of standing – it affects poor and rich alike in small towns, suburbs and cities.  “Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.

To generations who grew up in the analog world, it is difficult to wrap our brains around this trend. In prior generations, one key pursuit was independence. That was usually associated with getting a driver’s license so one could get out of the house and away from parents. The allure of independence does not have the same “sway” over teens today.  They are less likely to leave their house without their parents.

The results are predictable.  Dating has become less frequent, and it doesn’t start with “friending” of Generation X. It starts with “talking”.  Odd choice of words for a generation that prefers texting to actual conversation. The incidence of dating has dropped from 85% to 56% in the past several decades.

One positive trend:  teens are having less sex than prior generations – the statistics show teenage pregnancy is down 67 percent in 2016 from its high in 1991.

Even getting a license to drive has been affected, often a result of the “nagging” of their parents. In prior generations, it was more important. Being independent takes money, but teen employment hasn’t rebounded from the poor economy even as availability of jobs has.

Across a range of behaviors—drinking, dating, spending time unsupervised— 18-year-olds now act more like 15-year-olds used to, and 15-year-olds more like 13-year-olds. Childhood now stretches well into high school.”

While other things in high school haven’t change – participation in activities, for example, iGen are spending less time studying than prior generations, which means they actually have more leisure time.  What are they doing?  Well, “they’re on their phones, in their rooms, alone and often distressed.”

I recently observed this first hand. My daughter and her husband kept his niece who lived in Germany as an exchange student for a year. She was a sophomore in high school, and initially spent most of her time in her room at their home with the door closed on her iPhone. She had rare interaction with the family. She spent most of her phone time on Facetime with her friends in Germany, and in the U.S.

Some behavioral issues changed that, and she was limited to time on her phone and was forced to try out for soccer which occupied some of her free time. The result was remarkable. She quickly joined in family events and played games with the younger children. She became involved in their family life.

After she returned to Germany, she wrote a thank you letter for all that she had learned in her exchange student environment.  She was grateful for her experience, although there were some awkward moments. What I observed was a young woman who quickly learned to enjoy those around her. I give a kudo to my daughter and her husband for drawing the line on overuse of a smartphone.

One might assume that by spending so much time at home, there would be increased interaction with parents.  That is not the case. “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 non-screen activities are more likely to be happy.”

Depression is a common ailment tied to smartphone usage.  “Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent, while those who play sports, go to religious services, or even do homework more than the average teen cut their risk significantly.”

Even worse, teens who spend at least 3 hours a day on their smartphones have a 35% greater risk factor of suicide, or even formulating a suicide plan. That’s astonishing and terribly sad. Sleep deprivation is another by-product, and a high percentage of this generation sleeps with their phone within arms -reach, or even in their bed.

The increase in sleep-deprivation increased with the release of the smartphone in 2007. Sleep deprivation leads to several issues, among them, “compromised thinking and reasoning, susceptibility to illness, weight gain, and high blood pressure.”

As mentors and parents, we have choices when interacting with this generation.  One of them involves teaching them reasonable smartphone habits.  Our parents had to deal with over-watching television, which, by comparison is mild when it comes to mental health outcomes compared to the smartphone.

While this article has a focus on the American scene, I have found that in many parts of the world (Africa and Asia), the use of cell phones and smartphones parallels what we are seeing in the west. I suspect the issues are similar.

Twenge has one recommendation to iGEns: “Put down the phone, turn off the laptop, and do something—anything—that does not involve a screen.”  Good advice!  Another suggestion, defer giving your young children smartphones at an early age. It may be hard to do this given we have a generation of kids accustomed to a 24/7 digital world.

Our challenge is to recognize the potential damage that excessive smartphones can do the lives of the next generation. It’s the old story:  unless you see something as a problem, there isn’t likely to be any change.

 MENTOR TAKEAWAY:  You are in a good position to speak into the lives of your mentees about being wired all the time.  Moderation is a reasonable goal to establish.

 FURTHER STUDY:  The article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” in the Atlantic Monthly can be found at:

The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in its Proper Place by Andy Crouch is available from Amazon. Here’s a blurb on it from Barna Research:

WORSHIP:  Listen to Tommy Walker give encourage us with his song “I Have a Hope”:


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