Equity and Inclusion,  Multimodal,  Professional Development,  Student Academic Success

Reflections on iGen

I first encountered Jean Twenge’s research in her 2017 Atlantic article “Has the Smart Phone Destroyed a Generation?” and soon incorporated it into my English 110 class as a reading connected to my students’ Social Media and Self essay. It happened that Twenge was giving a live workshop during my class time in the spring of 2018, so my class and I watched and listened as teachers and professors from around the country reacted to Twenge’s research. My students and I followed with a discussion about how Twenge’s research did (or did not) characterize their experiences. To me, the most interesting of the comments from one of my students was, “Why is everyone freaking out? We are drinking and smoking less and not having unwanted pregnancies. Isn’t that what we have been told all our lives to do?” So, yeah, why are we all freaking out?

Graphs from Twenge’s 2017 Atlantic article “Has the Smartphone Destroyed a Generation?”

The short version is the findings about independence for iGen. Twenge asserts that although members of iGen tend to be more independent in that their thinking, such as rejecting stereotypes of earlier generations and being more inclusive and independent socially and politically, it’s the “doing” that is problematic. Twenge’s research demonstrates that iGen is entering adulthood later than previous generations, perhaps due to being more sheltered by their parents and caregivers. They are less likely to engage and embrace power structures and norms of our society, like expecting to get married or being affiliated with a religion, which is not that surprising considering they are the offspring of GenXers, for the most part.

To me, the most alarming chapters of the book had to do with ways that this generation is being affected by their internet use. As a parent, I was deeply disturbed by the “Generation Porn” and “Catching Feelings” sections of chapter 8 (p. 212-218), titled “Indefinite: Sex, Marriage, and Children.” The constantly screen-mediated experiences seems to be leading to a lack of physical connection to one another and thus a lack of emotional connection. If young people are viewing sexual experiences as defined by porn (212-214) and perceive that others their age are only interested in sex when it is emotionless and shallow (213), it’s no wonder they are having less sex and feeling more fear of intimacy.

The shaping of their perceptions about inter-personal relationships (both intimate and casual) is largely due to their online activities. This generation is more anxious, more depressed, more concerned about their prospects for employment, and about the environment, and I can identify with that. As a parent who is working from home in the middle of a pandemic, it leaves me wondering how much worse off this generation just got because of the shift to almost all online social interaction with anyone outside one’s household. How many more hours of social media consumption just cemented fears of interacting with the outside world (in this case, it feels justified with the threat of getting COVID). The more news I consume, the more difficult it is to be optimistic. The internet and the tools of communication are both a problem and a solution though.

Hope bubbles in me, though, because this generation is turning to social media and the internet as tools for social activism and organization, not just consumption. Twenge published this book in 2017 before March for Our Lives and the wide-scale use #MeToo in 2018, Global Climate Strike protests in 2019, and Black Lives Matter today. Although all generations are taking part in these movements, young people are engaging in person as well as online and in great numbers. Despite the many challenges of our current situation, many Millennials and iGeners are stepping up to confront social injustices and our world’s environmental crisis, which makes our support and teaching at SASC even more meaningful to me. I see our ePortfolio program as groundwork for students to build their technical skills to engage fully online by learning not only the technical but the importance of becoming comfortable using critical thinking skills and one’s voice beyond the classroom and university and into the wide world.