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Is Generation Z in Trouble?

Teens are using screens in ways that alarm many parents. What's the real story?

DMEPhotography/iStock
Source: DMEPhotography/iStock

In a recent article in the New York Times, journalist Tara Parker-Pope wrote a story titled, "Are Today’s Teenagers Smarter and Better Than We Think?" to counter some of the alarmists who claim that the current generation of teens is “disengaged, entitled, and social-media addicted.” As evidence of her position, she points to the amazingly poised and motivated teens who lead protest marches for greater gun control. So, what’s the story? Should we worry about “Generation Z” or just, as she suggests, “get out of their way?”

The “Moral Panic” of Every Generation

Like many big questions in life, there is not an unequivocal answer to the question of how Generation Z is faring. Generation Z is often defined as our current crop of teens and college students who are growing up always connected to the Internet, smartphones, and social media. In support of Parker-Pope’s position, one can make a strong case that some of the concerns about Generation Z are overly pessimistic.

Patrick M. Markey and Christopher J. Ferguson describe how just about every generation of parents goes into a form of “moral panic” over young people’s behavior in their aptly titled book, Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong. With the introduction of virtually every new form of media or technology (e.g., printed books, newspapers, radio, television, rock & roll music, MTV, video games, smartphones, social media), the older generation frets that the younger generation is going down the drain because of how they are using them. As Markey and Ferguson describe, such moral panics generally turn out to be unwarranted.

Nowadays, many parents, researchers, and pundits are worried about today’s youth. In part at least, they blame the overuse (or misuse) of smartphones and social media. In a recent issue of The Atlantic, the title of an article by Dr. Jean Twenge captured this sentiment: "Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?" She’s not the only one to express such fears. We have all run across headlines about how smartphones and social media are corrupting our youth. But is the hand-wringing about today’s teens any different from those of the past? Are such concerns overblown and misguided?

Teens of Every Generation Do Amazing Things

The impassioned teen leaders of recent protests certainly don't fit the characterization of teens as “disengaged, entitled, and social media-addicted." The issue is whether we are speaking about individuals or a generation. Certainly, every generation has extraordinary teens who produce amazing accomplishments. This generation is no different. But one can’t take anecdotal evidence to support that Generation Z is doing just fine… or not. After all, the Parkland shooter was a teen, and we don’t want to use him as the representative for what’s happening with today’s teens.

A Broader Look at Generation Z

If we pull back a bit, we might ask a question such as: How would we know if Generation Z is doing well or not? Before we even answer that question, we have to agree on some metric(s) for comparison. We must then look at the aggregate data on those agreed upon metric(s) to compare the current generation to previous generations. To determine whether the “kids are all right” these days, what metric should we use? If we use high school graduation, teen pregnancy, or violent crime rates, Generation Z is doing better than previous generations. But is one of those the best metric to examine?

Although this position is certainly debatable, one could argue that some measure of happiness (or, as psychologists like to call it, “subjective well-being”) is the best metric of how Generation Z (or any generation) is doing. Happiness, in this sense, refers more to a deep sense of contentment and life satisfaction than the pleasures that come from experiences such as eating ice-cream. It can be argued that happiness is a useful metric to assess how people are doing because almost everything we do in life is in some way tied to increasing our happiness (or reducing our suffering).

When we look at Generation Z, at least according to data from a number of sources, their well-being is dropping compared to those of teens from prior decades. Interestingly, screen use, by itself, does not necessarily decrease well-being. In fact, some studies suggest that moderate screen use can enhance well-being. However, numerous studies suggest that overuse of screens contributes to diminished well-being.

The Takeaway?

Is Generation Z in trouble? For the most part, no. Overall, they are not falling off of a cliff into anxiety, depression, despair, entitlement, and narcissism. In fact, many of them are accomplishing extraordinary things. For a number of teens and young adults, smartphones, social media, and gaming can be used to enhance relationships, productivity, and well-being. It’s likely that many young people the many pros and cons of technology use basically neutralize each other. Thus, many kids aren’t doing better or worse than teens from previous generations.

That said, when we look at the overall trends in well-being, there are increases in the rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide among young people. These increases are substantiated by solid research and worth our attention. While we can’t pin this all on smartphones and social media, research generally finds that the overuse of such technologies tends to diminish well-being. With screen time, there’s truth to the old adage that there can be “too much of a good thing.” However, if we learn to balance our screen use, we can gain more of the benefits of screens while minimizing some of the negatives. For the teens who learn to do this effectively, the kids will be more than just all right.

Update

I have posted a vlog on this topic - please come check it out!

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