I’ve seen enough research misrepresented or misinterpreted by the media to be a cautious consumer of what I read or watch. In particular, I’m always on the lookout for spurious correlations – assertions that two or more events are causally related when they’re not. For example, between the years 2000 and 2009, there was a 99.26% correlation between the divorce rate in Maine and per capita consumption of margarine. (Both fell, by the way.) Amusing? Yes. Correlated? Hardly. It’s a spurious correlation. But the correlations presented by Dr. Jean Twenge in this month’s edition of The Atlantic are not spurious. They’re strong. They’re disturbing. And they’re evidence of what our gut has been telling us for a while now.
The Atlantic article summarizes the findings presented in Dr. Twenge’s newly released book, “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.” It details how Dr. Twenge’s 25 years of research on generational differences that typically showed predictable slow-growing trends in population characteristics, suddenly revealed “dramatic shifts in behaviour” from 2012 onward. According to Dr. Twenge, “In all my analyses of generational data – some reaching back to the 1930s – I had never seen anything like it.”
So what did Dr. Twenge’s analysis find? I encourage everyone to read the full article, but I’ll summarize some of the trends she found. According to Dr. Twenge, members of iGen, those born between 1995 and 2012, demonstrate a number of shared characteristics that suggest they are socially maturing later and remaining in a period of adolescence longer than their GenX counterparts. In high school, these iGen-ers are less likely to go out on a date, less likely to have a part-time job, and are engaging in sexual activity later. They drink less but this is likely because they’re going to fewer parties. They get in fewer motor vehicle accidents but this is likely because fewer are learning to drive in high school. They report having more leisure time but spend more time alone. They’re sleeping less, reporting more sleep disturbances, and engaging far more in screen activities such as texting, browsing the web, and posting on social media. And this is where the correlations become important because the research also shows that “…teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy….”
Dr. Twenge doesn’t believe it’s a coincidence that these unprecedented generational changes coincide with the introduction of the iPhone. She believes there is a strong correlation between increases in social media use, changes in social behaviours and alarming increases in adolescent mental illness. Loneliness, depression and an increased risk of suicide appear to be hallmarks of this technologically connected generation. And the situation for girls is even more concerning. “Forty-eight percent more girls said they often felt left out in 2015 than in 2010, compared with 27 percent more boys.” This may be because girls use social media more than boys, and are more likely to use it as “a platform on which to carry out the style of aggression they favor, ostracizing and excluding other girls around the clock.” Combine increased isolation and increased social pressure to live an Instagram-worthy life, and it’s no surprise that rates of mental illness are skyrocketing amongst adolescents and, increasingly, among younger children.
Before coming across this article, I was already considering the implications of technology on our students and the degree to which we, as a school, should intervene. During a family vacation to England this summer, we visited Covent Garden where throngs of tourists gathered around a dance troupe performing in the central square, just as visitors to the market have done since the late 1600s. As I observed the crowd encircling the dancers, I realized that the vast majority of people weren’t actually watching the performance, but were on cell phones, texting, reading emails, and checking in. Many of those who were watching the troupe did so through the camera lens of an iPhone. I admit, I briefly did the same. Later that day, reflecting on how disturbingly disconnected the majority of onlookers appeared during a wonderful live event, I decided to rethink our school’s cell phone policy.
This September, our faculty agreed to throw a bit of sand on the slippery slope we’ve been heading down for a while now. We decided to regain our footing with a more clearly articulated and more uniformly enforced position on cell phone use during the school day. In short, student cell phones are not welcome in the halls of the Castle. If phones are not in a student’s locker, then they’re in a basket on the teacher’s desk during class. During lunchtime in the dining hall, every phone goes into a basket on the table – and that goes for teachers (and me), too. Students may check messages briefly after lunch, but phones are put away once afternoon classes commence. If phones are in use when they shouldn’t be, they’re taken away until the end of the school day. In our boarding areas, the girls’ cell phones, laptops and iPads are turned in before bedtime, and locked in charging stations overnight. I can’t say the girls like it, but I believe we’re doing the right thing.
It’s not easy to try and resist a social trend as strong as increased social media use amongst teens. I know it will take work on the part of our faculty to be consistent and persistent in applying the rules, and I realize it will take a long time before we achieve a school culture that truly embraces unplugging. But I believe it’s important to try. We may not be able to fully protect our students from the negative impact of a rapidly changing social media landscape, but we can provide respite. I ask parents in our community to support us in our efforts, and to consider applying similar limitations at home. Together, we have the ability to foster a community that feels connected by friendship, good conversation and shared experiences.