The Moral Panic Over Generation Z

Two young boys on cell phones

What’s up with today’s kids — Generation Z?

I recently was interviewed by Tara Parker-Pope of the the New York Times for a story she wrote titled, “Are Today’s Teenagers Smarter and Better Than We Think?” Unfortunately for me, I didn’t end up getting cited in her article. Ah, my brush with 15-minutes of fame! My book (which was written with my good friend and co-author Dr. Jon Lasser), Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kids in a Hyper-Connected World, is not out until August. So, perhaps I lacked enough “street cred” to cite. Alternatively, perhaps I didn’t say anything that supported the stance that she was taking in her article. But I did want to voice my perspective on the question: Is Generation Z alright?

The “Moral Panic” of Every Generation

In Patrick M. Markey and Christopher J. Ferguson’s excellent book, Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong, the authors do a wonderful job and chronicling how every generation goes through a form of “moral panic” over the behavior of younger generations. As Markey and Ferguson describe, moral panics turn out to be unwarranted. From the introduction of printed books, newspapers, the radio, television, rock & roll music, MTV, video games, smartphones, and social media, the older generation frets that the younger generation is going to hell in a handbasket because of the way some new technology is being used. It’s often not mere concern over the younger generation. It’s a full-blown panic that teens are falling off of a cliff.

Nowadays, many parents, researchers, and pundits are concerned about today’s youth. In part at least, they blame the overuse (or misuse) of smartphones and social media. In a recent Atlantic Monthly issue, Dr. Jean Twenge captured this sentiment in her article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” She’s not the only one to express such fears. We have all run across headlines about how smartphones and social media are destroying our youth. But is the hand-wringing about the current generation teens any different from those of the past? Are the current concerns overblown and misguided?

Teens of Every Generation Do Amazing Things

In her article, Parker-Pope uses the impassioned teen leaders of recent protests as examples of why the characterization of teens as “disengaged, entitled social media-addicted” kids doesn’t fit with what we’ve been seeing with teen involved in marches, protests, and speeches. I agree!

I think the issue is whether we are speaking about individuals or a generation. Certainly, every generation has extraordinary teens who produce amazing accomplishments. This generation is no different. But one can’t take anecdotal evidence to support that Generation Z is doing just fine…or not. After all, the Parkland shooter was a teen, and we don’t want to use him as an exemplar of what’s happening with today’s generation of teens.

A Broad Look at Generation Z

If we pull back a bit, we might ask a question such as: How would we know if Generation Z is doing well or not? Before we even answer that question, we have to agree on some metric(s) for comparison. We must look at the aggregate data on those agreed upon metrics to compare the current generation to previous generations. To determine whether the “kids are alright,” I would argue that we have to look at trends in areas such as overall happiness, depression, anxiety, and suicide rates. But there are other metrics worth consideration as well, including rates of high school and college graduation, teen pregnancy, and drug usage. So, depending upon what metric one is looking at, one could present a case whether Generation Z is struggling more than previous generations…in that agreed upon area.

I would argue that, ultimately, some measure of well-being is the best measure of how Generation Z is doing. When it comes down to it, arguably, our happiness is probably the single best measure of how we are doing – individually, as a society, or generation. After all, almost most everything we do in life is in some way tied to increasing our well-being or reducing our suffering. When we look at Generation Z, at least according to data, their well-being is dropping compared to those of teens from the decades prior. Overuse of screens seems to contribute to diminished well-being.

A Caveat

There’s one caveat I want to make here. There’s a possibility of publication bias in the research literature regarding the effects of smartphones and social media on the youth. That is, studies that show the negative effects of technology on the youth may be more likely to be published than those that don’t. We are all subject to various cognitive biases that affect our views and stances, even researchers and scientists. As objective as we try to be, we can be influenced by these biases. And if there is a systematic publication bias in the research literature on the effects of technology on the youth, then our interpretation of the published research will reflect the publication bias. Dr. Craig Ferguson found such a bias on the literature on the effect of video game violence. When this bias was statistically controlled, there was basically no relationship between playing violent video games and increased aggression.

The Takeaway?

Are the kids alright? Mostly, today’s kids are doing okay. They are not falling off of a cliff into anxiety, depression, entitlement, or narcissism. Smartphones, social media, and gaming can be used to enhance relationships, productivity and improve well-being for many teens. For a large percentage of teens, the pros and cons of technology use probably neutralize each other to some extent. Thus, many kids aren’t doing better or worse than teens from previous generations. That said, when we look at the overall trends in well-being, there are increases in the rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide among young people. These increases are substantiated by pretty solid research and worth our attention. While we can’t pin this all on smartphones and social media, research generally finds that the overuse of such technologies tends to diminish well-being. However, if we learn to balance our screen use, we can gain more of the benefits of screens while minimizing some of the negatives. For the teens who learn to do this effectively, the kids will be more than just alright.


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