Professor Gian Roma and Convocation Day speaker Dr. Jean Twenge during the Q&A
Professor Gian Roma and Convocation Day speaker Dr. Jean Twenge during the Q&A

Around 2011 to 2012, teen happiness tumbled down a statistical cliff. 

More experienced symptoms of depression, and felt lonely and disconnected. The percentage of teens with a risk factor for suicide began to ratchet up, as social interactions – hanging out with friends, going to parties – plummeted. 

What happened? The answer, as it turns out, was in the data. 

“For the first time, you could go into public space and see people looking at their phones,” explained Dr. Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and SUNY Broome’s 2019 Convocation Day keynote speaker. “The end of 2012 was when the percentage of Americans who owned a smart phone passed 50 percent.” 

The author of books on social psychology, personality psychology and narcissism, Dr. Twenge has spent the last 25 years researching generations. Her best-selling book iGen: Why today’s super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy and completely unprepared for adulthood, draws on nationally representative surveys of 11 million young people from 1966 to 2017, as well as in-depth interviews.  

“It’s the very first book to document the cultural changes shaping today’s teens and young adults,” SUNY Broome President Kevin E. Drumm said in his introduction to Dr. Twenge’s keynote address. 

Click here for Convocation Day photos by Professor Bill Hollister:

The Buzz Tones perform on Convocation Day 2019
The Buzz Tones perform on Convocation Day 2019

Growing up slowly 

Some of the trends she uncovered were surprising. Many parents today believe that children grow up too fast, in a less innocent time in which all manner of information is readily available. But in times and places where healthcare is better and education takes longer, parents often choose to have fewer children, whom they nurture more intensely – a “slow life” strategy that provides a somewhat meandering introduction to adulthood. 

By contrast, families in the 1950s often had many children and operated in survival mode – a “fast life” strategy that took more risks. 

Neither is bad or good, Dr. Twenge pointed out, but an adaptation to context – the tenor of the times. During her talk, she showed vintage photos of teens and younger children at a 1970s roller rink that included sexual behavior, alcohol use and smoking. They looked more like independent adults – making their own choices, even if improper ones — than their age-mates of today, she pointed out. 

“Generational differences happen because cultures change,” Dr. Twenge explained. “It’s like growing up in a different country.” 

Percentage-wise, fewer of today’s teens have driver’s licenses, have experimented with alcohol, went out on dates or work paying jobs by their senior year of high school, compared to decades past. Fewer are likely to go out during the week without their parents by their side, even as older teens. 

“Eighteen-year-olds now look like what 14-year-olds looked like not long ago,” Dr. Twenge said. 

While this is positive in many ways, there are pronounced negatives. Because they have been denied independence, members of the iGeneration – as Dr. Twenge dubs the teens of today, born after 1995 – may find it difficult to adjust to the adult responsibility and unstructured environment of college or the workplace. It’s no coincidence that “adulting” has become a verb to this population. 

“Sex and alcohol on a college campus is kind of like drinking out of a firehose,” she said. “They’re going from zero to 60.” 

The Hospitality Club serves up lunch during Convocation Day 2019
The Hospitality Club serves up lunch during Convocation Day 2019

What you can do 

While the impact of the iPhone stretches across the generations, it’s far more pronounced on children than adults. Smartphones and digital media take up an increasing amount of time, hindering young people from the in-person engagement they need to develop social skills – and even from getting enough sleep. 

Recreational time spent online has doubled for teens since 2006, and is currently around six to nine hours per day. More teens are sleeping less than seven hours a night – according to developmental guidelines, they need nine – and many sleep with their smartphones next to or even in bed. In short, they’re spending more time behind screens than engaged in non-screen activities, such as reading, exercising or hanging out with friends, which may be impacting their mental health. 

According to Twenge’s research, 45 percent of people who spend a significant amount of time online say they’re unhappy, as well as 40 percent of those who use social media. While science can’t prove the connection definitively by experiment, the connection between the rise of smartphone use and the survey data seems strong. 

Many of the underlying factors behind depression and happiness are outside of individual control, including genetics and life events. One factor we can control is how we use our leisure time – and our technology. Twenge believes a middle ground approach works best, neither banning technology completely or embracing it without reservation.  

Technology that contributes to classroom learning, for example, is appropriate, such as having students create short videos to illustrate class concepts, or learning via e-books. However, students should put their smartphones away during lectures, and put their laptops – if they’re using them to take notes – into airplane mode. Students who do so experience fewer distractions and, studies show, perform better on exams. 

Good sleep hygiene is also a must. At night, make sure to take your smartphone out of the bedroom, putting it on a charger downstairs while you’re sleeping, or just turning it off and putting it in your backpack. Make sure you power down your phones and tablets at least an hour before bedtime; not only are they psychologically stimulating, but they produce blue light that tricks your brain into thinking it’s daytime, she explained. 

But what if you use your phone to wake you up in the morning? 

“Buy an alarm clock,” she quipped. “You can buy it on Amazon on your phone.” 

To wind down at night, Twenge suggested reading a book or a Kindle Paperwhite with the back light off. Watching television is okay, too. If you use a tablet to watch shows, put it further away from you and wear orange safety classes to filter out the blue light. 

Twenge also suggests limiting recreational digital media to light use, at two hours a day or less, not counting the time you spend online for school or work. Make sure you spend face-to-face time interacting with others. 

“Smartphones are great. They need to be a tool that we use. It should not be a tool that uses us,” she said. 

The crowd waits for the Convocation Day 2019 keynote lecture to begin.
The crowd waits for the Convocation Day 2019 keynote lecture to begin.

Convocation Day events 

The single largest academic event on campus, Convocation Day featured a wide range of events, including performances by the student a cappella group The Buzz Tones, film screenings and an undergraduate research symposium poster session. 

Campus community members also enjoyed enlightening discussions of how to disconnect from social media, iGen in the workplace and iGen and democracy, enjoyed a lunch prepared by the Hospitality Club, and forged connections with those different from themselves during ASK!