Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Plight of the Millennials

Further explanation here. 
First, a bit about statistical norms and the normal distribution. In social sciences, for something to be considered a statistically significant characteristic of a group, it just needs to be present in about 68% of the population, or one standard deviation from the norm. There's tons of variation in the other 32%, so all the generalizations below might not apply to the people in your life. But, according to researchers, they apply to most people in each group, so we can still look at trends. I remember studies in my day showing a clear correlation between violent movie viewing and violent teens, yet I loved slasher flicks and still lean towards more gruesome films despite the stats. And, more to the point, nobody stopped making those movies. This recent article is unlikely to change a thing, but we're still wise to consider it.

The article in question is The Atlantic article, "Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?" which adds to a running list of problems with kids today caused by technology. It hits home from some of the trends I've noticed anecdotally in my classroom over the past 26 years: that phones are distracting, lead to unrealistic idealization and familial alienation, and affect sleep habits. But the writer misses any discussion that phones also drive constant change, consumerism, and cognizance of tragedies, and the significance of other factors affecting trends in this demographic. Here's a chart I sometimes use in class for an overview of demographics by year of birth. We've moved way beyond the boom, bust, and echo labels.

The article says,
The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health....More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party, today’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been. They’re markedly less likely to get into a car accident and, having less of a taste for alcohol than their predecessors, are less susceptible to drinking’s attendant ills. Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones....
Why are today’s teens waiting longer to take on both the responsibilities and the pleasures of adulthood? Shifts in the economy, and parenting, certainly play a role. In an information economy that rewards higher education more than early work history, parents may be inclined to encourage their kids to stay home and study rather than to get a part-time job....If today’s teens were a generation of grinds, we’d see that in the data. But eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-graders in the 2010s actually spend less time on homework than Gen X teens did in the early 1990s.... The time that seniors spend on activities such as student clubs and sports and exercise has changed little in recent years. Combined with the decline in working for pay, this means iGen teens have more leisure time than Gen X teens did, not less. So what are they doing with all that time? They are on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed....
Despite spending far more time under the same roof as their parents, today’s teens can hardly be said to be closer to their mothers and fathers than their predecessors were. “I’ve seen my friends with their families—they don’t talk to them,” Athena told me. “They just say ‘Okay, okay, whatever’ while they’re on their phones. They don’t pay attention to their family.”...You might expect that teens spend so much time in these new spaces because it makes them happy, but most data suggest that it does not....Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy....All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness....If you were going to give advice for a happy adolescence based on this survey, it would be straightforward: Put down the phone, turn off the laptop, and do something—anything—that does not involve a screen....Teens’ feelings of loneliness spiked in 2013 and have remained high since....The more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression....Since 2007, the homicide rate among teens has declined, but the suicide rate has increased....Girls use social media more often, giving them additional opportunities to feel excluded and lonely when they see their friends or classmates getting together without them. Social media levy a psychic tax on the teen doing the posting as well, as she anxiously awaits the affirmation of comments and likes....


This description fits with changes I've noticed as a teacher. I've had conversations with classes that insist the workload is so much more than ever before, but it's clearly not the case. They're just unable to put the phone down long enough to get it all done. There seem to be far fewer fights and a lot more 'crotch gazing' during class. Our recent push to get a Chrome Book into each student's hands is a questionable tactic when we're already struggling to get them to put their phones away. It's as if administrators don't realize that anything on their phone can be accessed on a laptop. The prevailing attitude is that tech is good, so more tech is better. It's harder to convince students to put away their devices now that they take notes on them (despite research indicating taking notes by hand increases learning of the material). We're in a place now where, instead of mandating the best student behaviour based on available research, we're succumbing to the easiest and most popular methods. Despite the costs, it's just so much more convenient for them to work online.

Current use of Google Classroom, a program that sends automatic reminders to students about work due, feels like a co-dependent move. Just this past year, students have started complaining to me that the lack of online reminders are costing them marks in classes not yet automated. They will no longer take the initiative to look at a website or the blackboard and copy due dates into an agenda. They've come to expect it all to come to them - even in 12U courses. And it is - except with old school die-hards like me. So we're no longer effectively teaching them how to organize themselves and stay on top of the work. That's a problem we seem to have no intention of solving. The automation works for us when we're with them, and when they leave, it's not our problem anymore. Schools definitely are to blame in part for enabling this trend to flourish.

I was recently, accidentally, privy to a backchannel happening in one of my philosophy classes. One of the students invited me to a group chat long enough to see what they talk about there, until the others blasted her for it and promptly exiled me. But it was educating for me. As my attempts to rouse a class discussion were met with blank stares, the chat group was full of surreptitiously written comments. It would have been great except, unmonitored, it ended up being largely (almost exclusively) catchphrases rather than rigorous discourse. Had I used an online method to have a discussion, they most certainly would have a hidden chat that would be just that much more easily accessed when phone use is allowed. It's like whispering or passing notes, just another form of escapism from the class instead of getting engaged. It's far safer to stay in the zone of memes - saying nothing of value in order to maintain allies with everyone. It's uncomfortable and risky to debate with classmates. For the teacher, it means, instead of discussion rising naturally from the content, it has to be more structured, with time to put all phones and laptops away first.


Further to the concern with mental health, the article says,
Electronic devices and social media seem to have an especially strong ability to disrupt sleep. Teens who read books and magazines more often than the average are actually slightly less likely to be sleep deprived—either reading lulls them to sleep, or they can put the book down at bedtime. Watching TV for several hours a day is only weakly linked to sleeping less. But the allure of the smartphone is often too much to resist. Sleep deprivation is linked to myriad issues, including compromised thinking and reasoning, susceptibility to illness, weight gain, and high blood pressure. It also affects mood: People who don’t sleep enough are prone to depression and anxiety....
Even Steve Jobs limited his kids’ use of the devices he brought into the world....Significant effects on both mental health and sleep time appear after two or more hours a day on electronic devices. The average teen spends about two and a half hours a day on electronic devices. Some mild boundary-setting could keep kids from falling into harmful habits.
The article suggests that three hours each day on social media is out of control, but, from studies my students have done, that's typically the lowest use category. I would not be surprised if some students are online over twelve hours a day, using up those two hours already before school starts each morning. It's definitely a problem, but if this is the primary means of socializing, then limiting it to two hours would mean kids miss out on socially vital connections: where people are going for lunch, who just had a fight, who's into you, and what people are wearing. Life moves faster, and missing a segment of the drama could be social suicide. It'll take more than suggested phone boundaries to cut that cord.

But there's another issue with phone use and mental illness. Back in the day, about 120 years ago, Emile Durkheim studied suicides extensively, and the most pronounced form he studied was suicide from anomie - the chaos that happens when things change too fast such that it's difficult to determine clear social norms and standards. He specifically studied the change wrought from the industrial revolution to show that even positive change can cause fatal emotional turmoil. So I wonder if it's not just that phones show people what they're missing out on or create an addiction for 'likes,' but that our culture is ever shifting now, and kids can't get a handle on any stable norms of behaviour. Whatever's right is in flux. Style and the fashions of the day aren't just an extra to our persona - something to throw on when we have the time and energy - but necessary to adopt as quickly as they come. Consider the speed that online language changes. In history class, we look at the slang of the 20s compared to today, but 'today' really means this week.  Looking back there won't be nearly as clear or brief a list of slang terms of the 2010s. If Durkheim's pivotal studies are anything to go on, coping with this rate of change must be adding to the levels of anxiety in our times.

Something else that worries me that the article didn't discuss is that it's not just that people are seeing friends having an amazing time on social media, it's that they're seeing them with cool new things while being bombarded with carefully selected ads for those exact things thanks to data mining organizations and algorithms. This new consumerism leads people deeper and deeper into debt to buy anything that offers the illusion of a positive social impact. I was in a mall with my youngest one day,  who's not too far off from the characteristics of the iGen demographic depicted here. I commented on her near-continuous lament about all the things she'd never have, and she responded, "You don't understand how it feels. You didn't have as many things that you couldn't have back in your day."

It's true! When I moved into my house built in 1927, it had 2' wide closets that I immediately renovated and enlarged. Gone are the days of two rotating work outfits and one Sunday best. But now, even with fewer children, we need bigger and bigger houses for all the stuff to be had. With more and more choices, we need stronger lessons on restraint and contentment, but instead we're still singing the praises of more, better, and newer. Our culture doesn't know what it feels like to have enough. Indicating status can't be done with just one or two lovely outfits; awash in ads, kids today feel like they need a continuous rotation to adequately impress the masses.

Another big difference from my childhood is that we were largely kept from major tragedies. When the news came on at 11:00, we were all shuffled off to bed. We might hear about things, filtered through our parents, but we wouldn't see graphic photos of scenes of destruction, torture, accidents and executions worldwide. Now, we see everything on YouTube. There are no boundaries and no filters. If your child has a device, they can see everything. We kept traumatic images from children for a reason that's been long forgotten. 

Finally, there are trends in this generation completely unrelated to phones. There's the, perhaps, dumb luck of living in a time and place free from catastrophe. As a society, we haven't been significantly affected by wars or famine in these parts for over 70 years. I wonder if it's the case that since resourcefulness and resilience aren't necessary to survival as much as they once were, they've diminished from lack of use. And now we're seeing the side-effects of that. Prosperity has made us lax, and that's made us all feel a little less useful than in the past, and lots of studies show a correlation between self-efficacy and happiness. How well can we teach efficient use of resources in the land of plenty?

And there's been a general shift in focus toward the individual and away from communities coupled with more awareness of abductions across the globe to frighten parents into keeping their kids close. It's interesting to me that the article talks about teens who don't go out with friends independently, concerned with their ability to have adequate social interactions. But my parents used to comment on kids today who don't get up at the crack of dawn to milk the cows. They didn't care if I made friends, as long as I was a hard worker. That's a significant change in parental attitudes from 'you should always do your best' to 'you should always have the best.' My Gen X group was seen as lazy and wasteful relative to the perseverance of the "Greatest Generation." If there was a bite left on an apple that I tossed, my dad would dig it out of the garbage, wash it off, and insist I finish it. Can you imagine!? That's practically child abuse by today's standards. According to the article, kids today would seem almost comatose by comparison. There's no more saving bits of string and tin foil and darning socks much less eating leftovers and wearing hand-me-downs. They won't even eat pizza without dip anymore!

I hope we're getting to a point where we recognize the need for kids to have less. The years right after high-school used to be a time of temporary poverty marked by milk crate dressers and brick and board shelving. It was a creative time as we impressed each other with our inspired use of garbage to furnish our first homes. And living with a motley collection of roommates was the single best lesson in real-world negotiation skills. But I also succumbed to the pressure to make life easy for my children with a trip to IKEA stealing their chance to fend for themselves; I was taking away any additional stressors rather than encouraging resilience. It didn't really hit me until my daughter moved back home with nicer kitchen gadgets than I own.

The next generation is unlikely to be better off than the last. Those days are over. And maybe we can't prepare them for something that isn't here yet anyway. Despite concerns about the future, it's not part of the social imaginary to scrimp and save anymore. We can't undo the drive to consume with classroom lessons any better than we can slow down the chaos. We can remind them of the difference between real life and the illusory nature of social media, but we're unlikely to be able to stop pangs of envy or loneliness when they see so many doing amazing things without them. We can suggest they read the old philosophers who almost all said happiness is not from having everything but from reducing desires, but we can't make them live that.

I don't think the generation has been destroyed by phones, but it's wise to heed some of the concerns. I can't imagine, at this point, getting my students or my own children to limit themselves to two hours a day, though. That ship has sailed, and teenagers aren't known for doing what's in their best interest. But I have been successful with lesser boundaries: phone down and eyes up when someone's talking to you, and get outside every day. The more serious side effects might be better attacked from other angles, but hopefully we can at least manage to teach them newly developed etiquette.

ETA: And then there's Adam Ruins Millennial Stereotypes:


The Mound of Sound said...

That was certainly, if not shocking, then dispiriting, Marie. It's hard for someone of my vintage to recognize the educational insurgency you describe. I have a great deal of empathy for today's young people given the cards that we're dealing them out of a deck conveniently stacked in our favour, not theirs. I remember the first time I saw a toddler in a stroller holding a tablet. It was a true WTF moment. I've seen that sort of thing a number of times involving kids in car seats.

I expect that the greater the generational gap the more likely we are to see the other as alien. There's simply less commonality of interest and values. What you've described strikes me as self-sabotage. What possible remedy can there be for that? We can't confiscate their devices or establish some quota of hours for non-electronic communication and basic, human interaction. I fear these kids are going to be in a hell of a mess with what's coming down the pike their way in the decades ahead. Perhaps some awareness of that predicament fuels their suicidal ideation.

Marie Snyder said...

It's interesting to me that I've had classes comment that they're not less social, they're just differently social, which could be true, except I'm not sure they know what they're missing. They haven't experienced both in order to be able to objectively say that nothing's been lost. But nor have I. On the brighter side, these things tend to sort themselves out one way or another. They're not all going to try to hold a job while on their phones all day. Something's got to give, and people will find their way through this. It would be nice if it were sooner rather than later, though.