Sculpture, Friendship Island, Potsdam, Germany. © 2017 Jen Burke Anderson
The September 2017 Atlantic article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”—written by Dr. Jean Twenge, who has been studying generational differences for twenty-five years—has been making the rounds on social media ever since. Rightly so.
Dr. Twenge’s findings shocked many but confirmed what plenty of us have been observing ground-level for years: The smartphone kids are in trouble. Big time.
The teenage-behavior and mental-health charts began aligning in remarkable ways post-2007, when the first smartphone came on the market. Specifically, Dr. Twenge is examining what she calls iGen: kids born beteween 1995 and 2012 who have never been without mobile access to the Internet. The years 2011–2012 marked a seismic shift for the very young in which:
• in-person hanging out with friends took a nosedive
• dating plummeted
• feelings of loneliness shot upwards
• insomnia and sleep disruption went through the roof
“Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011,” writes Dr. Twenge, calling it “the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”
The facts are distressing enough by themselves, but maybe the worst part is the extent to which her book and warnings will probably not change a thing. Because parents and adults who could turn the tide, especially here in the U.S., are instead throwing their hands in the air and doing one big cave. We don’t know how to tell young people they’re wrong. About anything.
This isn’t just an uptight, family-values rap anymore. True, the loudest, most consistent critics of this strange reality have sounded from the Right, blaming the usual suspects and tracing it all to the Sixties.
But in fact concerns about the vacuum of credible elder authority—or the feeling that it’s useless to try to assert or create one—have been coming from all over the political map for a long time.
Ten years ago NPR Executive News Editor Dick Meyer, to name just one, lamented the American Child King in his book Why We Hate Us—and that book in turn quoted a passage from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) that poetically implied all moral authority and permanent values were going straight to hell. Author Robert Stone, whose books focused on the Vietnam War experience, said much the same thing in a 1980s Paris Review interview.
But perhaps the saltiest, most usable insight comes from Australian-born art critic Robert Hughes (1938–2012) describing between-the-wars Surrealism for a public-television audience in 1980. The series was called The Shock of the New, and the episode was titled “The Threshold of Liberty.”
“If there was one link between Surrealism and the Sixties,” said Hughes as Summer of Love documentary footage rolled, “it was the illusion that youth is truth. By being born, one surpassed history. By finding reality intolerable, one became a prophet.”
Let’s look at one illustrative “prophet” of American youth-worship, who happened to be ascending by the time Hughes’ series aired. Jerry Rubin, attributed with the “Don’t Trust Anyone Over Thirty” nugget festooning t-shirts and badges through the late 1960s, was one of the Chicago Seven radicals put on trial for disrupting the 1968 Democratic Convention in protest of the Vietnam War.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rubin went into freefall after thirty. He even wrote a book called Growing Up (at 37).
But he wasn’t so grown up that he didn’t still need, apparently, the approval and attention of young people. By the early 1980s, he was hosting Yuppie “networking” parties (he is even credited with coining that term) at the Palladium nightclub in New York. No doubt our current commander-in-chief put in an appearance at some point.
Why this particular transformation into this particular perception of adulthood? (It’s worth noting Rubin was hardly the only one exchanging leather fringe for pinstripes around the same time. Strangely, he asserted that he “still had a lot of the same values” as in his youth, including his opposition to the war, which ten years after its end was not exactly a game-changer.)
If you’re a young person living in a city in 2017, be aware that you now inhabit the landscape paved by the likes of Jerry Rubin’s Palladium urchins—a winner-take-all rat race whose front-running vermin are the size of garbage trucks. The rental of a one-bedroom apartment (not just in New York now, but most major U.S. metropolitan areas) will run you more than a month’s income, that’s if you manage to actually get into one. Not easy when student debt is already engulfing your lifespan.
Despite this and myriad historical examples, the culture continues to deny that youth can be as reactionary and anti-humanist as anyone else.
To be sure, Rubin and his fountain of networking youth were not, by themselves, responsible for the wholesale gutting of that city’s life and soul, as documented in Sarah Schulman’s excellent book Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (which should be required reading in every school). But the former Chicago Seven member was indicative of a cultural sea change after which it was more important to be young than to be right.
There is analysis galore of how we got here, taking into account everything from the Age of Enlightenment to our foreign policy.
But the ground situation is that ours is a nontraditional culture. We’re expected to reinvent every last wheel as we go along. Imagining valuable life stages beyond, say, age twenty-six is unfathomable. If we want lovable, non-neurotic archetypes past the mid-twenties of a lifetime, we have to go looking for them, and then only find them in foreign films: the sexily competent career woman of thirty; the contented, paunchy dad in his forties; the nattily dressed tastemaker, in his fifties and enjoying the height of mental and seductive powers; the inward-looking elderwoman who comes out with salient truths at the moments least expected.
In our country, you are simply supposed to freeze at twenty-six. To age is to fail.
We still don’t question this much—or if we do, it comes in the form of lamenting that over-thirty actresses can’t get decent roles, rather than plotting the pass-down of values and ideas (which is off-limits, of course; that would involve actually admitting you got older).
What if, some time during the Carter administration, someone had simply given Jerry Rubin a tattered wool sweater in a dark earth tone? “Here Jerry, this is what radicals wear when they turn thirty and realize they did some pretty stupid shit in the Sixties. Maybe you want to get a farm and raise some chickens. Now, here’s what’s really going down in New York … ” Sometimes just a token of continuity or precedent can keep someone from going off the edge.
But how right they all seemed in the 1980s, those Armani-wearing beauties in GQ and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous pushing steadily into urban residential property. How could they possibly be wrong, with their slick 1950s haircuts, cocaine-and-hookers amorality, and Bret Easton Ellis paperbacks poking out the pockets of their Calvin Klein trench coats?
Oh, of course we thought we hated the Yuppies, but if you put one on the cover of your magazine, it flew off the shelves. Even the characters in John Hughes’ beloved teen films had major Yup aspects; Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was basically an aspirational set-piece. Look at all the cool stuff in their rooms! You had to have that stuff, too!
Yuppies were cruel, clean, and chic. Most importantly, they were young, and by the 1980s youth itself was a value, an inherent form of progress that would blossom as long as you didn’t examine it too closely.
And here we are. Maybe it’s little wonder that Millenials and iGen prefer the artificial teat-drip of social media to the charnal-house real world that previous generations have laid out for them.
But my sympathy doesn’t quite bleed over into Jerry Rubin–style deference.
I was tuned in to National Public Radio the morning of October 25 when I heard this actual blurb for the program Marketplace: “The Millenials are finding that national parks are not relevant to their lives.”
For Christ’s sake! I nearly stood up on the commuter bus and screamed. Down with the tyranny of “relevance,” always decided for us by any idiot under twenty-five! What is objectively necessary for everyone to be healthy and happy, and why are we so unwilling to stand up for it?
(Full disclosure: I could not bring myself to listen to the actual radio program, which no doubt instructed how national parks could be “saved” by turning them into phone apps or augmented-reality games.)
But this institutionalized Nature Deficit Disorder actually brings us to one of the most compelling and hopeful points of Dr. Twenge’s research: the spiraling patterns of teen depression and suicide correct themselves the more that young people are involved in sports, the outdoors, or other offline activities that pull them away from their phones.
“There’s not a single exception,” she writes. “All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.”
So what are we going to do about that?
Millenials and iGen worship technology.
So what? So did Mussolini. So did the Italian Futurists, Mussolini’s cultural lapdogs, described succinctly by Robert Hughes: “[Mussolini’s] watchword, as it was [Futurist kingpin Filippo Tommaso] Marinetti’s, was Modernity … speed, dynamism, mechanical force … contempt for women, the cult of masculinity, the cult of youth.”
All of which will sound eerily familiar if you’ve been living in Silicon Valley–occupied San Francisco for the past several years. Good luck taking a pleasure stroll in the park these days without being flattened by some robo-jerk on a “ridable” with a GoPro helmet.
Ours is a technocentric society. The gadgets and coding and apps are new, so of course they’re “progressive”; nevermind that they embody an approach to life, relationships, and the natural world that is conservative in the extreme.
And to all this, people my age and older say yes, yes, a thousand times yes. You go, little geniuses! Go on capturing a moment, even if that moment happens to be an unacceptable clown show that will irrevocably damage generations to come!
We will look at all the evidence before us—academic and anecdotal—and shrug, asserting that the nascent catastrophe described by Dr. Twenge is just another iteration of permanent change upon which we must not pass judgment. Kids, we’re telling ourselves still, are the ultimate noble savages; wise in ways we cannot guess.
And sometimes they are. But that is no excuse. If we don’t immediately start asserting our prerogative as pre-smartphone elders and pry phones from young hands for at least part of their day each day (best to set an example ourselves), not only will we have hatched a generation utterly incapable of dealing with an unstable and deadly twenty-first century, but we will have blood on our hands. The suicide numbers, especially among girls, could not send a clearer message.
Let’s stop apologizing for the courage of our convictions. All together now:
No, you cannot come to my party and stand around watching viral videos the whole time.
No, you cannot spend this camping trip Skyping with your boyfriend.
No, you cannot Periscope grandpa’s funeral.
No, you cannot film the movie.
No, you cannot watch Vimeo clips on the hiking trail.
No, you cannot spend six hours alone in your room on Instagram.
No you can’t.
No. You can’t.
Because what will be harder: saying these things now, or explaining to the young in twenty years or forty years why we allowed what happened to the environment in the twentieth century to happen to the human mind and soul in the twenty-first?
© 2017 Jen Burke Anderson