Some parents might worry about their teens spending so much time on their phones because it represents a radical departure from how they spent their own adolescence. But spending this much time on screens is not just different – in many ways, it’s actually worse.
Spending less time with friends means less time to develop social skills. A 2014 study found that sixth graders who spent just five days at a camp without using screens ended the time better at reading emotions on others’ faces, suggesting that iGen’s screen-filled lives might cause their social skills to atrophy.
In addition, iGen reads books, magazines, and newspapers much less than previous generations did as teens: In the annual Monitoring the Future survey, the percentage of high school seniors who read a nonrequired book or magazine nearly every day dropped from 60 percent in 1980 to only 16 percent in 2015. Perhaps as a result, average SAT critical reading scores have dropped 14 points since 2005. College faculty tell me that students have more trouble reading longer text passages, and rarely read the required textbook.
This isn’t to say that iGen teens don’t have a lot going for them. They are physically safer and more tolerant than previous generations were. They also seem to have a stronger work ethic and more realistic expectations than millennials did at the same age. But the smartphone threatens to derail them before they even get started.
To be clear, moderate smartphone and social media use – up to an hour a day – is not linked to mental health issues. However, most teens (and adults) are on their phones much more than that.
Somewhat to my surprise, the iGen teens I interviewed said they would rather see their friends in person than communicate with them using their phones. Parents used to worry about their teens spending too much time with their friends – they were a distraction, a bad influence, a waste of time.
But it might be just what iGen needs.