Smartphones and Teen Existential Angst

September 12, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’ve been wondering about America’s youth, mostly because of the Atlantic article by Jean Twenge: “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”  (Previous posts are here  and here .)
As the title of the article suggests, we’ve got trouble.

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 . . . At first I presumed these might be blips, but the trends persisted, across several years and a series of national surveys. The changes weren’t just in degree, but in kind.

Twenge shows how kids differ from those of just a few years ago in how they spend their time – less dating, driving, and hanging out with peers, and more time on their phones, tablets, and computers. These changes in behavior, Twenge claims, have psychological consequences.

The biggest difference between the Millennials and their predecessors was in how they viewed the world. . . .
There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.

I went to the archives of Monitoring the Future, the only source of systematic data that Twenge mentions. It surveys kids in 8th, 10th, and 12th grades. I looked only at the data on 12th graders. One of the MTF questions asks kids whether they agree with the statement, “It feels good to be alive.” The choices are Agree, Mostly Agree, Neither, Mostly Disagree, Disagree.” So few kids chose either of the Disagree categories ( 4- 6 %) that I combined them with Neither.

(Click on a graph for a larger view.)

In the most recent year, these depressive categories accounted for only 18% of 12th graders. All the others agreed – 51% gave unqualified agreement, another 20% “mostly” agreed. More important for Twenge’s argument, the graph lines do not fall off a cliff in 2012 or in any other year. There’s a slow decline 2012-2015, but the numbers in the most recent year are very similar to what they were in before smartphones and social media.

Monitoring the Future also asks a question that would seem to tap depression, or at least existential despair*: “Life often seems meaningless.” The levels of agreement are the same ones as for “Good to be alive,” but the distribution of answers is more even.

Again, the sunnier choices carry the day. Those who “Disagree” categorically out number all others, followed by those who disagree but with some reservations. And again, the MTF data shows no dramatic changes.

So, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” As I said in a previous post on this topic,
Whenever the title of a book or article is phrased as a question, two things are almost certain
  • The author thinks that the answer to the question is “Yes.”
  • The more accurate answer is “No.”
When it comes to finding life meaningful or worth living, teens today are no different from those teens twenty years ago who were sans iPhones, sans Facebook, sans Instagram, sans cyber-everything.
In the view of the existentialist, the individual's starting point is characterized by what has been called "the existential attitude", or a sense of disorientation, confusion, or dread in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world.
Existentialism - Wikipedia


David J. Littleboy said...

Although it's about children, not teens, you are going to LOVE this result.

That "experts" in Cognitive Development guessed the result wrong by a 50 to 16 ratio is especially hilarious.

Kids these days really are better.

Jay Livingston said...

Thanks for this link.
I have an idea about “moral nostalgia” and perceptions about “kids today.” I blogged about it in
this post, still one of my favorites. It has a link to another post on the same subject from the early days of this blog, complete with a link to Paul Lynde singing “Kids” from “Bye-bye Birdie.”