America’s Not-So-Lost Youth

September 10, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

It seems that we never tire of experts like Prof. Harold Hill, the con artist in “The Music Man,” warning us about the temptations that threaten to lead our children astray. That musical was set in Iowa a century ago, and when Prof. Hill told the good people of River City, “Ya got trouble, my friends,” the culprit was a pool table. I’m old enough to remember when the menace was comic books. Today it’s social media. All those kids spending so much time on Facebook, Instagram, and iPhones – surely that can’t be good.

Last month, The Atlantic ran an article in full Music Man mode – “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” by Jean Twenge .

I blogged my skepticism (here). Twenge’s previous alarmist reports – The Narcissism Epidemic, for example – had not held up well against the evidence. But I had not been able to deal with the data sets from Monitoring the Future (MTF) that Twenge used for evidence about the destruction supposedly being wrought by iPhones. I didn’t know it at the time, but Alexandra Samuel had already done some of the work. (Her article is at JStor – here)

Twenge acknowledges that kids today cause far less trouble than did their counterparts of earlier generations. Juvenile crime is way down. The same goes for pregnancy, drugs, and abortion. But, says Twenge, the kids are not all right. They are desperately unhappy. Or as the Atlantic sub-head puts it, they are “on the brink of a mental-health crisis.”  Ya got trouble my friends.

According to Twenge, the crucial year is 2012. “Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states.” It turns out that the MTF survey of kids does not have many mental-health items – nothing about anxiety or depression. It does ask about happiness. Here is a graph from Alexandra Samuel’s article. The survey asks kids how happy they are generally – Very Happy, Pretty Happy, or Not Too Happy.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

The biggest winner by far is Pretty Happy, chosen by 60-65%, a proportion that has not changed much since the first years of the survey. Since 2012, the percent reporting that they are Very Happy has decreased by perhaps 4 percentage points. Not Too Happy has increased by 2-3 percentage points. This hardly seems like the leading edge of a mental-health crisis.

As for the insidious effects of Facebook, Instagram and the rest, Samuel has a graph comparing kids who spend more time with social media (> 10 hours a week) and those who spend less. This too doesn’t do much to support Twenge’s claim that iPhones and the like are making kids “seriously unhappy.”

I don’t doubt that social media and smartphones have changed the way kids live their lives. Twenge presents evidence that kids are spending less time hanging out with peers, that they feel less pressure to drive a car, and that dating and sex are on the decline. I’d like to check the MTF data, but assuming Twenge’s report is accurate, are these trends a sign of a pending crisis in mental health? I seem to remember Harold Hill types warning about the dangers of peer groups, cars (remember those warnings about hot rodders?), and of course sex.  The Twenge types of a few decades ago were warning that kids were spending too much time with peers, unsupervised by adults. “Peer pressure” was always the source of bad behavior, never good. And adults fretted that this pressure was forcing kids to “grow up too fast ” (cars, sex). So if social media has made it easier for kids to escape these peer groups,  become less invested in cars, and have less premarital sex, maybe these trends are not harbingers of a coming crisis in the mental health of America’s youth.

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