By Carey Manzolillo
It’s 3:30 p.m., and seventeen-year-old Bella waits behind a locked door for a parent to pick her up from school, as she’s not allowed to walk home alone and is in no hurry to get her driver’s license. Wearing headphones, she scrolls through Instagram, pausing to send an emoji response to a friend’s text. She utters a quick hello to her mother as she climbs into the back seat and clicks her seatbelt without putting down her phone or taking off her headphones. Over the short ride home, she flits between Instagram and Snapchat, only looking up when the car shuts off in the driveway.
Bella, like her classmates, has never known a time before the Internet. Growing up more slowly than the free range children of a generation or two before her, she is pleased that safety is her parents’ top priority. She has had her own cell phone since she was 12, is not interested in dating and has never tasted alcohol. She has no patience for prejudicial thoughts of any kind and likes all kinds of people equally. But she is often lonely and sad, only seeing her peers during school or through organized activities like soccer and the occasional supervised birthday party.
Bella is the very picture of her generation, born after 1995 (the same year the Internet was born) and appropriately dubbed iGen. The pioneers of this starkly different generation are now graduating from college, and some are beginning to enter the workforce.
How do we know this generation is so unusual? Four nationally representative, long range surveys (some reaching back to the ’60s or ’70s) of more than 11 million young people all point to the same significant changes, nearly all beginning in the 2010s, when iGen reached high school.
With the Mayan calendar counting down to zero in 2012, there was much talk about the year promising cataclysmic or otherwise transformative events. Perhaps that prospect wasn’t so wrong. According to generational researcher and psychology professor Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., the most glaring changes in generational data took place around 2012.
“I had grown accustomed to seeing line graphs that looked like slowly growing hills, with cultural changes peaking after a decade or two of steady change,” said Twenge in a presentation to community members at Albright College. “But around 2012, the line graphs abruptly changed, looking more like steep mountains.”
The title of Twenge’s book, “Why today’s super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy — and completely unprepared for adulthood” paints a clear picture of the significant changes that her research expresses.
As surprising as the abrupt cliffs and valleys presented in the data is the recognition that nearly all of the shifts appear across different demographic groups. They are consistent across all economic and ethnic groups, and regardless of gender, region, and the type of town in which respondents grow up. And that’s especially significant because iGen, representing 24 percent of the country’s population, is the most ethnically diverse generation in American history.
So what made 2012 such a transformational year? It was the first year that a majority of Americans owned smartphones.
Yes, the relation between the date and generational data does not directly prove causation. But it is clear that unhappiness, depression and suicide rates have skyrocketed in direct correlation to teens trading in-person time with screen time. And it’s an issue that continues to grow, says Twenge. An incredible 56 percent more teens experienced a major depressive episode in 2015 than 2010 and twice as many 12-14 year-olds killed themselves.
Teens are now turning to screens six to nine hours per day, trading away time that used to be spent getting together with friends informally, going to parties, sleeping, watching television or visiting movie theatres. The largest shift of time comes from reading non-school books or magazines. iGens spend more time on screens than participating in off-screen activities. And experiments show that more screen time causes higher anxiety, loneliness and less emotional connection.
But there is hope. Longitudinal studies show that cutting screen time, even for only a few weeks, changes the picture.
Of course, the smart phone isn’t the only factor in every change. Influenced by the 2008 recession, iGen’ers have a far different outlook on their adult lives than their Millennial predecessors (1980-1994). While idealistic Millennials search for jobs that are interesting and inherently rewarding, iGen’ers are more practical, cynical and disengaged. And while previous generations believe college should be a place for learning, exploration, and being exposed to different ideas, iGen’ers feel that college should be a safe environment to prepare for a high-paying career. But iGen’ers are not looking forward to getting started in those careers and are pessimistic about their chances for success. Many resist becoming working adults long after their parents took up the charge.
According to Twenge’s research, “for nearly all of the 20th century, men in their 20s were the most reliably employed of all demographic groups, with nearly 85 percent in the workforce.” But in the 2010’s that group’s employment rate, regardless of education level, reached an all-time low. Though the number of men enrolling in college remained fairly steady, a quarter of men in their early 20s were not working by 2016. Twenge writes, “More say that they think getting the job they want will involve too much work.”
Fewer iGen’ers work in high school, too — down from 70 percent in 1980 to 43 percent in the 2010s. And though the number of kids who are unable to find jobs remains stable, the number of students who say they don’t want jobs has doubled. While some expound that iGen is trading this time with studies, the surveys show that today’s teens are spending about the same, or less time, on homework than GenX’ers (1965-1979). In fact, iGen teens are spending less time on jobs, homework, volunteering and extracurricular activities, combined.
At the same time, advances in the gaming industry have made solitary leisure time less expensive and more desirable. Directly related to the downward shift in work time is a solid uptick in video game playing. Twenty five percent of young men now say they play video games three or more hours a day. And while they’re not spending as much time gaming, girls are spending more time than boys on social media.
Still, teens are fighting less with their parents, and fewer are trying alcohol or having sex — at least in high school. Because they spend more time on screens than driving or seeing friends in person, “physical safety has reached unprecedented levels,” says Twenge, noting that the generation’s definition of safety has expanded beyond physical to also include emotions.
“A lot of these are good trends, but it also means that students are arriving on college campuses ready to go from 0 to 60, trying these experiences for the first time,” says Twenge. “They arrive with less independence and are unable to make minor decisions without talking to their parents. It’s a rough transition, making lifestyle instruction, peer education and freshman experience events more popular.”
Each August, more than 75 Albright students become Peer Orientation Persons (POPs) to guide first-year students through their entire first week at the college.
“As POPs, we are not allowed to be constantly on our phones in front of the freshmen during their orientation,” says Albright public health and Spanish co-major Victoria Baumert ’21. “During that time, I don’t have the urge to go into my bag and grab my phone due to the fact I have a major responsibility that has my undivided attention (usually it would be my phone).”
An iGen’er, Baumert owned an iPod touch and Samsung flip phone before getting her first smartphone on her 13th birthday.
And though she bucked the trend by holding a job in high school, Baumert says she communicated more with friends through her phone than in person. “The drive to their houses would exhaust gas that I did not have the money to afford,” she explains.
Still, like many other members of iGen, Baumert is not blind to the addictive pull of her phone.
“I can go on it to check something on Facebook and catch myself watching advertised videos two hours later. I do have a desire to spend less time on my smartphone, but the urge of knowing something or seeing something on social media brings me back to checking it often,” she says.
Of course it isn’t always simple to take a different path. And staring at devices isn’t always about funny cat videos and the latest memes.
“Recently, I’ve been busy trying to create my own personal website, as well as my own fashion social media accounts,” says fashion and communications co-major Abby Ensslen ’21. “I’ve needed to use technology to create these platforms, as well as look at inspiration for design and content. Academically, a lot of the research I do is online and I often write papers for classes.”
What’s clear, is that iGen is open to ideas that allow smartphones to lighten their path, instead of darkening it. “iGen students have been surprisingly receptive to the idea of turning off their phones for a set period,” says Twenge. Her research shows that replacing that screen time with exercise, face-to-face interaction, and even reading or sleeping may help to break the addiction.
iGen is also much more open to ideas surrounding societal equality. Continuing to slide away from religion, by 2016 one in three 18-24 year olds said they did not believe in God, labeling themselves as “not religious” and “not spiritual.” And many young believers describe a disconnect between their personal morals and those of religious teachings. A 2012 survey of 18-24 year olds found that most believed Christianity to be antigay, judgmental and hypocritical. And a whopping 79 percent of nonreligious teens believed that Christianity was antigay.
Sexual discrimination is an important discouragement for a generation that values individualistic ideals above all else. iGen’ers as a whole are less willing to label anything as wrong.
“I think my generation is just done with fighting about basic human rights,” says theatre alumna Zoe Grossbardt ’19. “Everyone deserves to be equal, and it baffles me that so many don’t agree. It doesn’t matter skin tone, sexual orientation, where you grew up — any of it. Everyone deserves the same rights.”
But, says Twenge, though iGen’ers often take to the web to spread awareness of human rights issues, they also make it clear that they expect offline action to come from others.
“They are more likely to support the idea of helping others but less likely to venture out to actually provide that help,” writes Twenge. Far from generations that fought authority at every turn, iGen’ers look to authority to fix or censor uncomfortable situations.
Some suggest this is a side effect of a generation supervised at every moment instead of left to roam freely and make decisions (for better or worse) as children. iGen’ers expect authorities — parents, school administrators, work supervisors — to protect them from emotional distress. Coining the new phrase “emotional injury” iGen equates verbal harm to physical violence, making public shaming powerful.
In fact, says Twenge, protecting students from distress is considered more important to iGen’ers than discussing potentially uncomfortable ideas in college classrooms. As students resist the traditional notion that they, too are responsible for their own safety and push for bans on uncomfortable feelings and discussions, college teams edify iGen’ers to the concept that challenging pre-conceived notions results in confidence-building and, most importantly, learning.
So while learning to disagree and talking about differing viewpoints has been at the heart of a college education for generations, 21st century college leadership strongly focuses on helping students understand the value in those undertakings, too.
“They’ve been conditioned to be told what is right and wrong,” says Trustee Chairman Jeffrey Joyce ’83. “The world is full of grey, theories and opinions. We need to expose iGen’ers to the idea that there isn’t always resolution.”
Experts agree that it’s a task that shouldn’t be ignored. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, one of the most empirically supported talk therapies for depression, teaches the value in facing reality and seeing things objectively, whereas an emphasis on protecting emotions might actually be damaging mental health.
But mental health is a topic that iGen’ers see as intertwined with safety — a topic that has become so important that some are beginning to refer to it as a “human right.”
“A safe environment for a student promotes the improvement of mental health by decreasing anxiety regarding fear of their own campus community,” says Baumert.
Agreeing, Ensslen says that both issues are extremely important, and “if we risk one, we may damage the other.”
On the pulse of iGen, Sam Wesner, Albright’s vice president for student and campus life and chief health officer, remains at the forefront of an ever-evolving trove of college safety and mental health initiatives on campus. At the core of each one? Face-toface interaction.
Representatives from the Caron Foundation and Safe Berks are now available on rotating schedules and students are engaging in in-person initiatives like outdoor funand- games and fundraisers for disadvantaged classmates. As students learn that exercise is a natural antidepressant, they fill glow yoga classes and pack the fitness studio in the Schumo Center for Fitness and Well-Being.
Awareness campaigns and activities promote stress relief and in-person interactions. But, Twenge says, students can make a big impact on their own mental health by silencing phones an hour before bedtime and keeping them dark, and inaccessible, overnight.
“Good health is the foundation upon which well-rounded lives should be built,” says Wesner. “I truly believe that Albright prepares its students to fulfill their greatest potential — not only in the classroom or the boardroom, but also in their minds, bodies and spirits.”