View from Brussels: Save the children - should we ban the smartphone?

Smartphones have come to define a generation and are even changing its psychology. The delayed independence, lower face-to-face socialisation and growing rates of unhappiness among today's teenagers are surely a cause for concern.

This generation, Generation Z (born after 1995), is less independent, more conservative, less likely to socialise in public places and more lonely, according to the research of Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University. Twenge has now cashed in on her work on the attitudes of young people - work that she has carried out for decades - in the newly published popular science book iGen. iGen is used interchangeably as a term with Generation Z and is a nod, of course, to the iPhone.

If readers are put off by pop sociology and cute labels to describe an entire cohort of young people born over 20 years, rest assured that your correspondent feels a similar ambivalence. Apparently, I’m from Generation X (1964-1982). Before that, there were the baby-boomers (1946-1964), and after that, there were the Millennials (1981-1994). Incidentally, whatever happened to generation Y? Why can’t these people be consistent?

Set aside the whiff of advertising slogan shallowness over the label, I believe it is useful to map the shifting psychological attitudes of generations. Of course, as scientifically trained people, we all understand the simplifications involved in assigning social labels. Still, views do change over time, and reading about her book is a bit of a revelation. Looking at the generation above mine, and especially two generations above mine, there is no doubt whatsoever that values are completely different. My grandparents had very strictly defined gender roles and believed in God, Duty and Nation. They thought it unthinkable to wear jeans. They started breeding early. They would die for their country and worshipped (for lack of a better word) their King.  

My parents’ generation smoked dope and discovered Freud and let it all hang out in the ’60s, whereas my generation may have seemed to retrench a little because of the conservatism of the Thatcher era, but, actually, in our social values, we were just as a liberal as our parents. One would have thought that individualism, yearning for personal self-development, secularism, sexual  freedom would have continued to increase, but I suppose all trends have a turning point and that maybe it’s been reached with today’s iGen. In Prof. Twenge’s surveys, this generation is much less likely to date - only 56 per cent compared with 85 per cent of my generation. They have their sexual debut later, are less likely to have paying jobs outside school hours and less likely to take their driving licence at the earliest possible opportunity.

Twenge writes: “Even driving, a symbol of adolescent freedom inscribed in American popular culture, from ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ to ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’, has lost its appeal for today’s teens. In conversation after conversation, teens described getting their license as something to be nagged into by their parents - a notion that would have been unthinkable to previous generations.”

In other words, today’s teens are a generation of homebodies and they are growing up more slowly. They stay children for longer. My generation - Generation X - was tougher, more independent, freer. 

Why the shift? Some people would point to helicopter parenting, the climate of fear created by 9/11 and the war on terror - but the arrival of the smartphone has meant that physical separation from the parental home has become less necessary for the conduct of social life. I believe this is important. You can Facebook and iMessage from the comforts of your bedroom with mum’s cup of tea always on hand. For all the talk of cyber-bullying, this is a safe space.

Today’s young spend less time hanging out outside the grill kiosk, the bowling alley or in the fields outside the cider farm. You can hypothesise that they will be less likely to socialised by peer groups. Instead, the internet and social media allow them to relate to others in a sequence of dyadic one-to-one relationships, each of whom are unaware of the other participants’ existence. You would think that the freedom to socialise one-to-one with more people remotely would be more conducive to individualism; better that than being subjected to the group pressure of youth gatherings. Yet if you judge by the tsunami of demands for safe spaces and protection from micro-aggression taking place at our universities, it seems to be making people less tolerant. Perhaps because smartphones allow for a more discriminating choice of friendships and maybe because you don’t get the hard knocks that group socialisation brings with it, including confrontation with different views, away from the protective presence of your parental home. The tyranny of the Facebook newsfeed plays its part in creating a bubble of opinions.

Another consequence of the smartphone takeover of the young generation people’s lives is the growth of unhappiness. Twenge writes: “The Monitoring the Future survey, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and designed to be nationally representative, has asked 12th-graders more than 1,000 questions every year since 1975 and queried eighth and 10th-graders since 1991. The survey asks teens how happy they are and also how much of their leisure time they spend on various activities, including non-screen activities such as in-person social interaction and exercise and, in recent years, screen activities such as using social media, texting and browsing the web. The results could not be clearer: teens who spend more time than average [with] on-screen activities are more likely to be unhappy and those who spend more time than average on non-screen activities are more likely to be happy.”

Twenge also solved the correlation-is-not-causation problem - because unhappiness might have caused people to use Facebook rather than vice versa - by citing social scientists who have people register their happiness while using Facebook and finding that unhappy people are not prompted by their negative state of mind to use Facebook more.

“College students would get a text message with a link five times a day and report on their mood and how much they’d used Facebook. The more they’d used Facebook, the unhappier they felt, but feeling unhappy did not subsequently lead to more Facebook use.”

Twenge summarises thus: “Social networking sites like Facebook promise to connect us to friends. But the portrait of iGen teens emerging from the data is one of a lonely, dislocated generation.”

I have read this before: face-to-face sociability is the greatest indicator of overall well-being, according to positive psychology research (e.g. Martin Seligman and others). It seems to me that if people go out and met face-to-face they become happier, on top of the other ancillary benefits such as promoting independence.

Is socialisation with friends, face-to-face, something we should deny young people, who have less experience of - and less judgement about - what’s in their best interests? It seems odd and funny that our generation should be the one telling youngsters to go out and get drunk and get laid (and get their driving licences!) when we are so used to the idea that it was always the young ones pushing the boundaries.

I think the smartphone and the Internet are marvellous inventions and they have facilitated my work enormously as a writer and journalist. In principle, I am against banning things. But still, let us play out this mental exercise. What would be the effects if smartphones were suddenly banned tomorrow?  Or restricted availability to the over-25s only? Would it make life better or worse? Can the smartphone concept be tweaked in some way; social engineering imposed on real engineering?  What about creating a Facebook that would not allow you to access it until you had completed your 10,000 steps a day, exercise being the greatest prophylactic against depression?  

In Sweden, the most technologically connected country in the West and similar to the United States in many ways, they are reintroducing national service. The official story is that it is to counter the “Russian threat”. Unofficially, it is to try and control the rampaging migrant youths from torching cars in the high-rise suburbs. It will doubtless also serve to socialise young people, give them meaning, make them fit. In short, get them away from those damn smartphones.

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