Are Today’s Teenagers Smarter and Better Than We Think?
Today’s teenagers have been raised on cellphones and social media. Should we worry about them or just get out of their way?
A recent wave of student protests around the country has provided a close-up view of Generation Z in action, and many adults have been surprised. While there has been much hand-wringing about this cohort, also called iGen or the Post-Millennials, the stereotype of a disengaged, entitled and social-media-addicted generation doesn’t match the poised, media-savvy and inclusive young people leading the protests and gracing magazine covers.
There’s 18-year-old Emma González, whose shaved head, impassioned speeches and torn jeans have made her the iconic face of the #NeverAgain movement, which developed after the 17 shooting deaths in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Naomi Wadler, just 11, became an overnight sensation after confidently telling a national television audience she represented “African-American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper.” David Hogg, a high school senior at Stoneman Douglas, has weathered numerous personal attacks with the disciplined calm of a seasoned politician.
Sure, these kids could be outliers. But plenty of adolescent researchers believe they are not.
“I am fascinated by the phenomenon we are seeing in front of us, and I don’t think it’s unique to these six or seven kids who have been the face of the Parkland adolescent cohort,” says Lisa Damour, an adolescent psychologist and author of “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood.”
“They are so direct in their messaging. They are so clear. They seem unflappable.”
Dr. Damour, who has spent her career talking and listening to teenagers, said she believes the Parkland teens are showing the world the potential of their peer group. “Those of us who live with teenagers and are around them can see something that is different about this generation,” she said.
There is still much to learn about the postmillennial cohort — social scientists haven’t even agreed on when this generation begins, although there seems to be a consensus forming that the year 2000, give or take a few years, is a good place to start. But data collected from various health surveys already show that today’s teens are different from previous generations in many ways.
Many risky behaviors have dropped sharply among today’s teens. Cigarette smoking among teens is at a historic low since peaking in the mid 1990s. Alcohol use has also declined significantly — the number of teens who have used alcohol in the past 30 days is down by half since the 1990s. Teen pregnancy rates have hit historic lows, and teens over all are waiting longer to have sex than their parent’s generation. Teen driving fatalities are down about 64 percent since 1975. Some of that is attributed to safer cars, but teen crashes have declined between 10 and 30 percent in states with tiered licensing systems, and teen drunken driving has dropped while teen seatbelt use has increased.
While most health researchers celebrate these changes in teen health, some scientists think the trends suggest a lower level of maturity among today’s teens. Perhaps teens are safer simply because their reliance on social media and smartphone use means they are getting out less. In September, the journal Child Development published a study by Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, noting that there is a decline in a number of “adult” activities among today’s teens. In seven large, nationally representative surveys of eight million American adolescents from 1976 to 2016, fewer adolescents in recent years are having sex, dating, drinking alcohol, driving, working for pay and going out without their parents.
“The big picture is that they are taking longer to grow up,” said Dr. Twenge, whose latest book is “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.”
In an article in The Atlantic last fall titled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?,” Dr. Twenge argued that teens are more comfortable in their bedrooms or on smartphones or social media than at a party. While they are physically safer than past generations as a result, rates of teen depression and suicide are on the rise. “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades,” she wrote. “Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”
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But a number of social scientists and adolescent health researchers disagree with that conclusion. While teen depression and suicide rates are worrisome, there is no causal link to show those trends are the result of smartphones and social media. In fact, a literature review by Unicef researchers in December found that moderate use of digital technology tends to be beneficial for children’s mental well-being, while no use or too much use is associated with a “small negative impact.” The larger issues that affect a child’s well-being are family functioning, social dynamics at school and socio-economic conditions, the report concluded.
“I think we must contemplate that technology is having the exact opposite effect than we perceived,” said Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former dean of freshmen at Stanford University and author of “How to Raise an Adult.” “We see the negatives of not going outside, can’t look people in the eye, don’t have to go through the effort of making a phone call. There are ways we see the deficiencies that social media has offered, but there are obviously tremendous upsides and positives as well.”
Don Tapscott, author of “Grown Up Digital,” said he believes today’s teenagers are better communicators than any previous generation. “They didn’t grow up being the passive recipients of somebody else’s broadcast,” he said. “They grew up being interactors and communicators. In the 1960s we had a generation gap. What we have today is a generation lap — they are lapping their parents on the digital track.”
The clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel interviewed groups of middle school and high school students around the country in 2015 and 2016 for her new book, “Voice Lessons for Parents: What to Say, How to Say It and When to Listen.” Dr. Mogel spoke with diverse kids from various regions and walks of life, but found herself consistently impressed by their thoughtfulness, how much they liked their parents, and how much they cared about the world around them.
“The press and general public like to see them as spoiled and not having to work hard for anything except grades and being very entitled,” Dr. Mogel said. “But they’re courageous, energetic, optimistic and really smart.”
Neil Howe, a historian whose books include “Millennials Rising,” said that unlike earlier generations, today’s teens have accepted the structures of society and have learned to work within those boundaries. “They’re very good at using rules to make their point, and they’re absolutely excellent at negotiating with their parents, and negotiating in a reasonable way about how to bend these rules in a way that will make them more effective and give them more space,” he said. “This is not a ‘throw the brick through the window and burn stuff down’ group of kids at all. They’re working very constructively, arm-in-arm with older people they trust, to make big institutions work better and make them stronger and more effective.”
Ms. Lythcott-Haims notes that the current crop of teenagers is the first generation to grow up with active shooter drills since kindergarten. “I think what we might have here is a generation that really defines itself by the markers of their childhoods,” she said. “In addition to being marked by these gun violence tragedies, they came to consciousness with a black man in the White House and smartphones in their hands.”
What does all this mean for the future of today’s teens? All of the researchers agreed there is still much more to learn about this cohort, but what we know so far is promising.
“We are in the process of distilling the data and discerning who they are, but I am excited,” said Ms. Lythcott-Haims. “We don’t know who they will be in their 20s, but already they have agency, the sense of your own existence, your own right to make decisions and your own responsibility for outcomes and consequences. That’s what we need to have to be mentally well. I think these folks could turn out not to be just leaders, but to be a generation that we look back on and end up calling one of the greatest.”