n 1954, scientists James Olds and Peter Milner ran some experiments on rats in a laboratory at McGill University. What they found was remarkable and disturbing. They discovered that if electrodes were implanted into a particular part of the rat brain—the lateral hypothalamus—rats would voluntarily give themselves electric shocks. They would press a lever several thousand times per hour, for days on end, and even forgo food so that they could keep pressing. The scientists discovered that the rats were even prepared to endure torture in order to receive these shocks: The animals would run back and forth over an electrified grid if that’s what it took to get their fix. They enjoyed the shocks so much that they endured charring on the bottoms of their feet to receive them. For a long time afterward, Olds and Milner thought that they had discovered the “bliss center” of the brain—but this was wrong. They had discovered the reward center. They had found the part of the brain that gives us our drives and our desires. These scientists assumed that the rats must have been in a deep state of pleasure while receiving these electric shocks, but in reality they were in a prolonged state of acute craving.
Jean Twenge’s important new book, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, talks about a new form of electronic stimulation that appears to be driving young people to extreme distraction. A professor of psychology at San Diego State University, Twenge has built her career on looking at patterns in very large samples of people across long periods of time. She takes data from the General Social Survey, which has examined adults 18 years and older since 1966; the American Freshman Survey, which has questioned college students since 1991; the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System; and the Monitoring the Future databases. She looks to see whether there have been any changes in behavior and personality across time for people the same age but from different generations. Prior to iGen, she was the author of The Narcissism Epidemic (2009), co-written with psychologist W. Keith Campbell, and Generation Me (2013), a book about self-entitled Millennials. Twenge knows whereof she speaks.
Unlike previous patterns of rising narcissism, the trends of self-regard and self-entitlement associated with those born after 1995 appear to have petered out. What Twenge does find, however, is that reversals in trends of narcissism have been replaced by sharp increases in anxiety. Rates of anxiety and depression are spiking rapidly in young people, while at the same time their engagement with adult behaviors is declining. Using dozens of graphs, Twenge shows the reader how teenagers today drink less, go out less, socialize less, are less motivated to get their driver’s license, work less, date less, and even have sex less.
At first glance, the data seem counterintuitive, because the social pressures to abstain from alcohol and casual sex have never been more relaxed. But, on further reading, it appears that young people’s avoidance of adult behaviors has at least something to do with the addictive and distracting nature of smartphones and social media. Of course, Twenge is careful to point out that this is all “correlational.” She does not have a smoking gun and cannot prove causality. But the speculation seems plausible. All of the changes she observes started accelerating after 2007, when smartphones became ubiquitous. She writes:
I asked my undergraduate students what I thought was a very simple question: “What do you do with your phone while you sleep? Why?” Their answers were a profile in obsession. Nearly all slept with their phones, putting them under their pillows, on the mattress, or at the very least within arm’s reach of the bed. They checked social media websites and watched videos right before they went to bed and reached for their phones again as soon as they woke up in the morning (they had to—all of them used it as their alarm). Their phone was the last thing they saw before they went to bed and the first thing they saw when they woke up. If they woke up in the middle of the night they often ended up looking at their phones. They talked about their phones the way an addict would talk about crack: “I know I shouldn’t, but I just can’t help it.”
Recent experiments also lend support to the hypothesis. In an experiment carried out in 2013, psychologists Larry Rosen and Nancy Cheever brought 163 university students into a room. Some students had their phones unexpectedly taken away and others were told to put their phones on silent and out of sight. All students were then asked to fill out a brief anxiety questionnaire in 20-minute intervals. Those who were the heaviest smartphone users and heaviest social-media users recorded anxiety levels that kept climbing over the 90-minute period. The kids who used their smartphones the least did not have any increase in anxiety. This experiment lends strong support to the hypothesis that smartphones, by their propensity to promote constant use, do in fact cause agitation.
Twenge’s chapter on mental health in the generation born after 1995 makes for the book’s most disturbing reading. Heavy smartphone and social-media use correlates with higher anxiety and increased feelings of loneliness, particularly in girls. Social media seems to allow girls to bully one another in much more subtle and effective ways than were previously available. They constantly include or exclude one another from online activities such as group “chats,” and they are forever surveilling their peers’ presentation and appearance. This means that if girls aren’t vigilantly checking their social-media accounts, they won’t know if they’re being gossiped about or excluded from some fun activity. Like the electrodes placed on Olds and Milner’s rats, this new technology seems to activate the reward center—but it does not induce states of contentment, satisfaction, or meaning. It also takes time away from other activities such as sports and in-person socializing that would induce feelings of contentment and satisfaction. For a young person who is developing his personality and his competencies in the real world, this could have a profound and long-lasting effect.
Twenge tries not to be alarmist, and she presents her findings in a cautious, conscientious manner. She takes care to make caveats and eschew emotionally laden language. But it’s hard not to be alarmed by what she has found. In the six years between 2009 and 2015, the number of high-school girls who attempted suicide increased by 43 percent and the number of college students who “seriously considered” ending their lives rose by 51 percent. Suicides in young people are carefully tracked—there can be no ambiguity in this data—and increasing rates of children killing themselves are strong evidence that something is seriously amiss. From 2007 (the year smartphones became omnipresent) to 2015, suicide among 15- to 19-year-olds rose by 46 percent, and among those aged 12 to 14, it rose by half. And this rise is particularly pronounced for young girls. Three times as many 12- to 14-year-old girls killed themselves in 2015 as in 2007; among boys that age, suicide doubled in the same period. The suicide rate is always higher for boys (partly because they use more violent methods), but girls are now beginning to close this gender gap.
Another startling chapter in Twenge’s book focuses on sex, relationships, and family formation. We all know that young people are putting off marriage and child-rearing until later years, often for sensible reasons. But what is less well known is that young people are dating a lot less and spending a lot more time alone. It appears that old-fashioned romance and courtship norms are out the window, and so too is sex among young people. Twenge writes:
[M]ore young adults are not having sex at all. More than twice as many iGen’ers and late Millennials (those born in the 1990s) in their early twenties (16 percent) had not had sex at all since age 18 compared to GenX’ers at the same age (6 percent). A more sophisticated statistical analysis that included all adults and controlled for age and time period confirmed twice as many “adult virgins” among those born in the 1990s than among those born in the 1960s.
But if 16 percent are virgins, that means 84 percent of young people are having sex. Perhaps, then, there’s only a small segment bucking the trend toward more libertine lifestyles? Not so. Twenge writes:
Even with age controlled [in samples], Gen X’ers born in the 1970s report having an average of 10.05 sexual partners in their lifetimes, whereas Millennials and iGen’ers born in the 1990s report having sex with 5.29 partners. So Millennials and iGen’ers, the generations known for quick, casual sex, are actually having sex with fewer people.
For decades, conservatives have worried about loosened social and sexual mores among young people. It’s true that sexual promiscuity poses meaningful risks to youths’ well-being, especially among women. But there are also risks that manifest at a broader level when there is a lack of sexual activity in young people. And this risk can be summed up in three words—angry young men. Anthropologists are well aware that societies without strong norms of monogamous pairing produce a host of negative outcomes. In such populations, crime and child abuse increase while savings and GDP decline. Those are just some of the problems that come from men’s directing their energies toward competing with one another for mates instead of providing for families. In monogamous societies, male-to-male competition is tempered by the demands of family life and planning for children’s futures.
These trends identified by Twenge—increased anxiety and depression, huge amounts of time spent on the Internet, and less time spent dating and socializing—do not bode well for the future of Western societies. It should come as no surprise that young people who struggle to connect with one another and young men who can’t find girlfriends will express their anxieties as political resentments. Twenge’s book reveals just how extensive those anxieties are.
Like the rats that forgo food to binge on electric shocks, teenagers are forgoing formative life experiences and human connection in order to satiate their desire for electronic rewards. But the problem is not necessarily insurmountable. Twenge identifies possible protective factors such as playing sports, real-life socializing, adequate sleep, sunlight, and good food. Indeed, phone apps designed to encourage good habits are becoming popular, as are those that lock people out of their social-media accounts for predetermined periods of time. Twenge also argues that iGen has several positive indicators. They are less narcissistic and are more industrious than the generation before them, and they are also more realistic about the demands of work and careers. But harnessing those qualities will require an effort that seems at once piddling and gargantuan. IGen’s future well-being, and ours, depends on whether or not they can just put down their phones.