Dr. Jean Twenge. Courtesy of the New York Times.

More than ever, teenagers and young adults are reporting feeling anxious and depressed. Suicide rates, especially among young women, have been starting to rise. Dr. Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, posits that the increase in smartphone use and social media is responsible for endangering youth. She’s the author of the book “iGen,” whose whopping 27-word subtitle sums up her research well: “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.” 

Those born between 1995 and 2012, dubbed “iGen” by Dr. Twenge, statistically take longer to go on their first date, longer to get their driver’s license and longer to get a job. This expansion of adolescence is part of a culture shift that is leading to a “slow life strategy.” 

“Slow life strategy tends to happen when people live longer, when healthcare is better, and when education takes longer to finish. It means the whole lifecycle slows down, meaning adolescence is slower,” said Dr. Twenge. “Parents and culture have done a good job of protecting children and teens from harm, but we may also be protecting them from having experiences.” 

“The biggest concern is the mental health trends,” said Dr. Twenge. “We need to think about what’s causing it and what to do about it.” 

A big part of the alarm in mental health is, according to Dr. Twenge, due to smartphone use. Young people who report spending the most time on their phones, 5–7 hours, are also twice as likely to report being depressed as those who spend less time on their phone, 1–2 hours. 

“I really have come to believe that social media needs to be more strongly regulated,” said Dr. Twenge. “We probably need to raise the age minimum from 13 to 16, and we need to enforce it.” 

Social media algorithms, especially those fueling political divide, bring up ethical issues in regard to big tech companies. 

“As far as algorithms, we need to think about this in terms of the political atmosphere in the country. What is it doing to the political conversation in the country? What is it doing to the attitudes of young people?” said Dr. Twenge. “I think it’s playing a role in the pervasive negativity and political polarization that we have right now, but the solution is not so straightforward.” 

As the mother of three “iGens” herself, Dr Twenge takes steps to practice what she preaches. 

“I’m putting off smartphones for a long time. My oldest is 16 and she just got her first smartphone two weeks ago,” said Dr. Twenge. “Even though she’s 16 I don’t want her to have social media.” 

As for students at Wabash college, all of whom are squarely within the iGen range, Dr. Twenge has advice on how we can start distancing ourselves from these devices: Get your phone out of your bedroom.  

And for those in dorms or fraternity rooms where we don’t have that option? 

“Turn it completely off,” says Dr. Twenge “Put it in a backpack and zip it, just as much out of sight, out of mind as possible.” 

As we foster the brotherhood on campus that is synonymous with Wabash, it’s important to be mindful of how our smartphone usage affects our conversations with others. 

“When you’re together with friends, everybody should put their phone in a basket or someplace away. That way you can concentrate in that face-to-face social interaction without the idea of ‘Oh wait, what if my friend takes his phone out because I said something boring?’ It’s something everybody does and something everyone hates when it happens to them.”