Despite their quirky viral memes, huge online followings and seeming all round digital savviness, the kids are not alright.

Or so says an American professor concerned by iGen – the first generation of humans to have access to a smartphone for their entire adolescence.

San Diego State University professor Jean Twenge graced the New Zealand airwaves recently when she spoke to Radio NZ’s Jesse Mulligan about her new 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.

Twenge said “iGen” are those humans born between 1995 and 2012 who have had access to a smartphone their entire adolescence. She believes screen time is at the core of an increase in teenage mental health issues and feelings of social isolation and loneliness at higher levels than ever before. “Spending time with other people in person face to face is really good for mental health,” Twenge told Mulligan.

“So if teens are spending a lot of time on screens it is probably not good for their mental health, but even more, that screen time is preventing them from seeing their friends in person – and that’s even worse for their mental health.” This was a “double whammy of social interaction moving from persons to screen”, she told Mulligan.

Research showed it was FOMO (if you need to Google that acronym you are definitely not in iGen) behind some of this. There is pressure for the teens to be constantly on their phones, to respond to messages and posts and the idea that organising real life meetups was too hard.

But…

Soon after her research hit the media, mainly via this Atlantic article, it was quickly ripped to shreds by other scientists – and backed up by anecdotes from parents.

This critique makes a pretty good point: “[Twenge] is a member of GenX, a generation considered by its Baby Boomer parents to be every bit the feral, clueless space aliens that Twenge describes iGen as being. “That earlier worry was in good measure mistaken (as GenX writers, scientists, and teachers prove every year), and there’s a good chance Twenge’s worries about iGen are equally mistaken. That generation will be handed a wrecked mess of a world; it’s entirely possible to hope they’ll be up to the task of saving it.”

So if the critics are right, Twenge – a leading researcher in her field – just cherry picked evidence to support her book-selling agenda. But if Twenge is right, do we have a problem on our hands?

Mosh partner and producer of an iGen member, Jon Randles, thinks Twenge might be onto something. “She is right, in that anecdotally we see people – not just teens – on their devices all the time.

“I have a teenage son and it can be murder trying to get him to put his screen down,” he says. “However, the older generation looking at young people using new technologies and poo-pooing them isn’t new.”

Social media should be looked at as a tool, not “something to love, hate and certainly not fear,” he says. “Like anything it depends on how it is used. Over reliance or time spent on any tool is unlikely to be healthy in the long run. “These devices do have addictive qualities for sure, and as parents we have a responsibility on how our children are using them, but I wouldn’t blame all youth depression on kids playing Candy Crush.”

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