What Just Happppeeeeeened?

It’s a guilty pleasure of mine.  I don’t watch much television, but I do like to watch America’s Got Talent, when it works out in my schedule.  I love seeing individuals reaching their full potential and stretching the limits of what’s possible. Whether it is AGT or Roycemore’s variety show, it gives me goosebumps when I witness excellence.  It inspires me to dig deeper and wonder what’s possible. One of the judges on AGT for a number of seasons was Mel B. She is known for some of her over-the-top reactions to particularly extraordinary acts and for yelling out, “What Just Happeeeeened?”  Her reaction is entirely appropriate for some of the acts that you see on AGT.  It is also a reaction that is entirely appropriate for some of the cultural changes that we are experiencing in our world today.  

In the book iGen:  Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, Jean Twenge lays out a case for naming the generation that follows the Millennials, iGen (rather than “Gen Z” as has been used in some circles).  Born beginning 1995 (the year the Internet was born) and with an estimated end year between 2009 and 2015, Twenge argues that iGen-ers are 1. In less of a hurry to grow up; 2. Spend a significant amount of free time online; 3. Are more socially connected virtually rather than IRL (in real life); 4. Are more anxious, stressed and depressed than Millennials; 5. Affiliate less with religion and spirituality than Millennials; 6. Are more inclusive, expecting equality regardless of race, gender, sexual identity, or other differences; 7. Are more risk-averse than prior generations; 8.  Are exceedingly cautious about engaging in serious romantic relationships requiring commitment; 9. And are less likely to identify with a specific political party.

For the Baby Boom or GenX generations, the differences in the iGen generation are dramatic.  A reflection of those changes could even cause us to call out, like Mel B, “What just happeeeeened?”  Twenge says, “Cultural change has many causes, not just one–it’s not just parents, but technology, media, business and education working together to create an entire culture that is radically different from the one our parents and grandparents experienced.”  One might say, but how is this different from the changes other generations have experienced? And you could make a case there. But a key difference is in the dramatically rapid pace of change, and in the aspects of those changes that could have serious unintended consequences for our world.  While there are some aspects of the iGen culture that are positive, such as the focus on inclusivity, the ramifications of some of the other key cultural components of iGen leave cause for concern, such as:

  • Online lives taking on greater importance than real ones.
  • An unprecedented increase in the rates of depression and anxiety among young people.
  • A rapid decline in the amount of reading and in-person social activities by young people, combined with a rapid increase in the amount of time spent online.
  • A reluctance to embrace the responsibilities that typically are associated with independence and adulthood at ages that were the norm even during the GenX and Millennial generations.

Twenge spent a great deal of time researching the timing of the rapid changes she noticed and found that it coincided with the time that the majority of cell phones in the United States were smartphones– phones connected to the Internet.  While unable to directly implicate the smartphone, the evidence was significant and staggering. The smartphone, with all of the positive opportunities it brings, has ushered in a new reality for the lives of young people and, as Twenge points out, has an especially profound impact on the lives of young teens.  

Knowing that the smartphone is not going away and that rather versions of it, including wearable technology, are already becoming ubiquitous, how might we respond?  What implications does this have for K-12 schools and even colleges? And how can we help young people navigate a world/ a culture that is radically different from the experience of young people just a few years ago?  These are topics that we should be addressing as a school in collaboration with faculty, parents and students. Twenge suggests that parents consider the following as starting points:

  • Put off giving your child a cell phone as long as possible, and when you do, consider making it a phone without Internet connectivity.
  • If you and your family use a smartphone for an alarm clock, switch to a regular alarm clock and move phones out of bedrooms.
  • Consider employing a screen time app to become more aware of the amount of screen time your children have.  Limiting screen time to an hour a day can support your child building social connections through more traditional means, which research shows leads to less depression and anxiety.
  • If your children were restricted to using one social media platform, make it Snapchat or forums that allow for posts that are not meant to be seen by large audiences and that have limited lifespans.

No doubt there is much more to learn about the impact that our hyper-connected world is having on all of us, both in positive and not-so-positive ways.  We all benefit, however, by being more thoughtful about how we choose to use technology, and how we approach the use of technology with our children.

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