[MOTHER OF INVENTION] The Battle for Our Kids’ Brains

Rita Mauceri

A friend recently sent me an email saying I should check out a new book entitled 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. The title is long and wordy, but definitely presents a compelling hook for any parent raising a child in today’s tech-driven age.

Roughly defined, iGen refers to the generation of kids, teens, and 20-somethings born in the mid-1990s and after. Technology has ruled and shaped their tender young lives from birth in a way that prior generations can’t really begin to fathom.

On a basic level, it’s easy to see how the omnipresence of technology is an advantage in some ways, but also a huge—and potentially devastating—problem in other ways. iGen’s author, Dr. Jean Twenge defines the generation in this way: “Born in 1995 and later, they grew up with cell phones, had an Instagram page before they started high school, and do not remember a time before the Internet.”

If her name sounds familiar, it’s because Twenge also penned the much-buzzed-about Generation Me. This is not new territory for the psychologist, who gathers her data and intel from a set of 11 million young people, and it’s not new territory for parents, doctors, teachers, sociologists, and policy makers either.

For all of us, the issue of technology’s increasing impact is a complex and unwieldy one. We are shepherding the first generation born and raised in the age of smartphones.

For our kids, texting, Instagram and Musical.ly have replaced after-school sports, park outings, and cruising the mall, while “hanging with friends” is done online, rather than in person.

But according to Twenge, technology is not the only thing that makes iGen unique. They also have vastly different attitudes toward self, sexuality, religion, politics, alcohol, dating, and even personal safety.

To give you a glimpse, Twenge writes: “iGen idea: the world is an inherently dangerous place because every social interaction carries the risk of being hurt. You never know what someone is going to say, and there’s no way to protect yourself from it … the concern with ‘emotional safety’ somewhat unique to iGen. That can include preventing bad experiences, sidestepping situations that might be uncomfortable, and avoiding people with ideas different from your own.”

From there, it gets worse for iGens: “They are at the forefront of the worst mental health crisis in decades.”

Still, some critics, like NPR’s Annalisa Quinn, are skeptical of the book’s methodology, and more hopeful about the current generation. Quinn categorizes the writing as a “cocktail of exaggeration and alarmism.”

“The real problem with iGen is that Twenge draws her conclusions first and then collects evidence that supports those conclusions, ignoring evidence that doesn’t,” she said.

NPR’s podcast “Hidden Brain” interviewed Twenge and said, “Twenge is more focused on observation than evaluation. She’s trying to get a sense of how American culture is changing over time and how school, work, and just about everything else may have to change with it.”

Clearly, things are changing. As the mother of two 12-year-old boys, it did not surprise me that the World Health Organization (WHO) recently announced it was planning to include “gaming disorder” in a draft of its upcoming 11th International Classification of Diseases.

As mother of a middle-school girl who spends weekends posting pictures of everything from feet to flowers on Instagram, it did not surprise me that Healthline.com, recently used science to show how social media is killing friendships. It turns out our human brains get maxed out at 150 friends, so anything more is meaningless.

“While our brains can tell the difference between chatting online and in-person social interaction, it’s unlikely we’ve developed more—or a separate set of—energy just for social media use. There’s a limit as to how many people we’re truly in touch with and have the energy for,” the Healthline article read.

Twenge would most likely concur. While “social media advertises itself as increasing our connections to each other … several studies show that people who spend more time on social media are actually more lonely, not less.”

As parents, we must continue to watch iGen closely. Because smartphones are here to stay. Because it’s our kids we’re talking about. And because, as Quinn amusingly points out, “Intergenerational carping is one of our great human traditions, like storytelling, or art. With it, we relieve anxiety around aging and mortality, and congratulate ourselves at being better than our replacements. The young may inherit the earth, but we will tell them they’re doing it wrong until our very last breaths.”

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