A while back, I sent my collegiate son a text with the following quote from a letter by F. Scott Fitzgerald to his collegiate daughter: “Once one is caught up in the material world, not one person in ten thousand finds the time… to form what, for lack of a better phrase, I might call the wise and tragic sense of life. By this I mean the thing that lies behind all great careers… the sense that life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat, and that the redeeming things are not ‘happiness and pleasure’ but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle.”
The fatherly fear behind that text: replace “material world,” with “social media world,” and the odds get even worse. That’s why I read iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood — And What That Means for the Rest of Us, by SDSU professor of psychology Dr. Jean M. Twenge.
Through both data analysis and interviews, Twenge demonstrates that, “for good or ill, iGen teens are not in a hurry to grow up.” With regard to multiple landmark behaviors, “eighteen-year-olds now look like 14-year-olds once did.” And how are they spending their extended childhoods? On their smartphones.
I asked Twenge what makes an adult, and why it’s worth it to become one. “That’s a pretty hard question to answer,” she allowed. “Personally, I think being an adult is fun because you get to be independent and do what you like, at least to an extent. That’s sometimes lost in the conversation about idealizing childhood: in a lot of ways, it’s not really fun to be a kid. You have people telling you what to do all day long. I hated that particular aspect of being a child.”
But if independence isn’t an obvious good for kids born between 1995–2012 — and my impression from iGen is that it’s not — a parent, ahem, could be asked, “Why would I ever want to be a grownup? Especially if I’m satisfied with (or at least occupied by) the pleasures afforded by the internet — especially social media?” What to say?
“Put simply,” replied Twenge, “because you can’t live with your parents forever. Or maybe you can, but it’s not necessarily the best way to enjoy the pleasures of life.”
Convincing iGen of that may take some doing, but Twenge sees reason for hope. “I kind of expected iGeners to take it completely for granted that we live in the age of smartphones, and that’s just the way it is. But there were many who saw the definite downside of our current way of living. That was surprising; they hadn’t known any other world, and yet they still saw the drawbacks. After the book came out, I got a few emails from young people, and the one that stuck in my memory most was a young man who said, ‘I really want to talk to my friends at lunch. But they’re all on their phones, so I can’t. Even though I’m putting my phone down, it’s a futile enterprise.’”