Smartphones HAVE Changed a Generation; Get Over It!

Smartphone Generation
Smartphone Generation

In a new book with a very long title, “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,” author Jean Twenge takes a hard look at iGen, the first generation to grow up in tandem with the smartphone.

If you haven’t heard of this book, it’s likely you saw or heard about a controversial article the same author wrote for The Atlantic (”Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”). I’ve listened to lots of parents comment on this piece, many vigorously agree with Twenge that the smartphone is to blame for a host of adolescent problems, while others believe her findings (i.e., “The correlations between depression and smartphone use are strong enough to suggest that more parents should be telling their kids to put down their phone.”) are overstated or alarmist.

I spend a lot of time around the kids that Twenge writes of, and they do seem different than the generation before them, in ways that can be considered both good and bad. But hasn’t that always been the case? Even back in the days of Ancient Greece, the philosopher Socrates worried that technology had ruined his generation too. He believed that the stylus, the first writing instrument, would “create forgetfulness in the learners’ soul.” Perhaps he was partly right, but I think we would all agree that the trade-off—the ability to write and read information—has been well worth the price.

There’s a great lesson, called “Becoming a De-Tech-Tive,” in the book, “Digital Community, Digital Community,” by Fielding Graduate University professor Jason Ohler. He suggests getting youth to explore different technologies introduced throughout history—from the radio to the microwave oven—so that they can discover how each one has changed human behavior, for better and for worse. I’ve done this lesson with my own classes and when we eventually get around to discussing the technology of today--computers, smartphones, etc.—it’s fascinating to hear them weigh the impact of these devices on their own generation. Listening to them reassures me that while they may be different, in many ways they are just like every previous generation that has had to find a way to adapt to societal change.

So, it may be unproductive to say an entire generation has been destroyed because of technology we’ve thrust upon them--and embraced enthusiastically ourselves. I think it’s time to get over it. It is what it is. If we must debate anything, let’s talk about what we can do to prepare this generation for their future.

What you can do:

  1. If you are concerned this generation is spending too much time on their phones, then model what it looks like to spend less time on your own phone, and help them come up with non-phone activities. Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. David Greenfield, the Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and the founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, who is one of the nation’s top “Internet Addition” experts. He told me that he challenges his patients to make of list of 100 “real-time activities” they can do without technology. This is a great activity for families to do together too. That way when, in a moment of boredom, the urge to grab a smartphone strikes, everyone can refer to this list for alternative activities.
  2. If you are worried kids are using their online time unwisely or unsafely, then educate them. There are tons of educational opportunities online. Many kids find their way to these themselves, getting homework help from the awesomely entertaining and educational Crash Course videos or Khan Academy. YouTube is actually filled with videos that can feed the educational interests of young people on topics that might not be covered in school (they might need your direction here). An education in digital literacy is a good idea too. After all, when books were invented, schools taught children to read. When the car came along, we taught them to drive. Don’t they deserve lessons on how to use their connected devices safely and smartly too?
  3. If you are worried about online dangers, education can help here too. If your kids are young and you must give them a smartphone to keep in touch (and before they are developmentally equipped to make the smart choices these devices require), then please consider some sort of monitoring software. Many of our phones and computers come preinstalled with this stuff, and there are some great products that can help here too, even those that protect your kids everywhere they go--like Family Zone, for example. This software can monitor a child at home, in school, and even when they are mobile.

After all, as Bob Dylan so aptly sang to a previous generation,

“Come mothers and fathers

Throughout the land

And don’t criticize

What you can’t understand

Your sons and your daughters

Are beyond your command

Your old road is rapidly agin’

Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand

For the times they are a-changin”

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