iGen: Why today's kids are growing up safer and less happy than before

by Donna Chisholm / 03 January, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - iGen teens mental health

Photo/Getty Images

Today’s teens are growing up more slowly than previous generations – they’re less likely to drive, smoke, booze and have sex. But if they’re doing fewer risky things, why isn’t their mental health improving? 

Author and generational change researcher Jean Twenge had never seen anything like it. For nearly 25 years, the San Diego professor of psychology has been studying the differences between generations, but in 2012, the gradual, subtle and often unremarkable changes that defined the Boomers, Generation X and the Millennials underwent a seismic shift.

The line graphs she’d been analysing for years that had once looked like hills slowly growing into peaks had suddenly become steep mountains and sheer cliffs. A new generation had announced its arrival with a louder yell than the average newborn.

The data revealed the marked differences between today’s teens and those of earlier times – and they’re not what you’d expect: they’re much less likely to have had sex, had a baby, drive, take drugs, drink or smoke – or even to go out without their parents. In other words, they’re growing up more slowly and taking fewer risks.

Many of the changes began around 2011 or 2012, too late to have been caused by the money squeeze of the global financial crisis (GFC) that ended in 2009. So what, then?

The answer, Twenge decided, is smartphones, because it was in those years that teens began to widely use phones that could access the internet. She’s dubbed the cohort iGen and written a book about it, iGen: Why today’s super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy – and completely unprepared for adulthood. A follow-up to her earlier work on Millennials, Generation Me, it explores her theory that because iGen’ers are socialising virtually, the traditional rites of passage are delayed.

Generational change researcher Jean Twenge.

“No matter what the reason, they are eschewing adult activities until they are older,” she writes. “Contrary to the prevalent idea that children are growing up faster than previous generations did, iGen’ers are growing up more slowly: 18-year-olds now act like 15-year-olds used to, and 13-year-olds like 10-year-olds.”

Somewhat paradoxically, however, she says that although teens are physically safer than ever, they’re more mentally vulnerable, putting them at the forefront of “the worst mental health crisis in decades, with rates of teen depression and suicide skyrocketing since 2011”.

She says iGen is distinct from every previous generation in how its members spend their time, how they behave and their attitudes towards religion, sexuality and politics. “They socialise in completely new ways, reject once-sacred social taboos and want different things from their lives and careers. They are obsessed with safety and fearful of their economic future and have no patience for inequality based on gender, race or sexual orientation.”

Multiple causes

In New Zealand, youth health researchers noticed the same trend in data collected for the Youth2000 series, which questioned around 9000 secondary students in 2001, 2007 and 2012. But, they say, the changes were happening here sooner.

Terryann Clark, principal investigator of Youth’12 and a senior lecturer in the school of nursing at the University of Auckland, says researchers saw dramatic reductions in risky behaviours that were previously regarded as very difficult to modify. “We saw huge behavioural change and really interesting differences between various groups. Maori, for instance, who’ve always had much worse health outcomes and greater risk, [showed rates that] were dropping much faster than Pakeha.” That doesn’t mean Maori are now doing better – “they were starting off at a much worse place”.


This graphic shows percentage changes in key health indicators from 2001-12 using Youth2000 series data:

  • The inner wheel is the 2001 level for each issue.
  • Each spoke that extends out beyond that circle represents a percentage increase in that issue; each one that goes inward from that circle is a percentage decrease in that issue. So if you look at “Parents worry about money for food”, for example, the line extends out from the circle, meaning it has increased since 2001. The “Part -time job” line goes inwards, as this has decreased since 2001.
  • The changes that are negative are depicted in red, and the changes that are positive are in green. For example, we have a decrease in cigarette smoking and increase in caring adults at school – both positive, so both green.
  • The length of the bar shows the percentage change, so a 50% drop goes half the way in, whereas a 5% drop goes 5% in.
  • Where there has been minimal or no change, the coloured bar is absent.

Clark isn’t as quick as Twenge to identify the smartphone as the key driver of the shift, saying there’s unlikely to be a single cause. She says the changes were becoming apparent here between the 2001 and 2007 surveys – New Zealand was one of the first countries in the world to report the trend – but accelerated in the 2012 results, perhaps because of the added financial pressure in the fallout of the GFC.

She points to law changes between 2001 and 2012 that introduced graduated driver licensing and reduced the breath- and blood-alcohol limits for drivers aged under 20 to zero. Public health marketing campaigns, such as 2011’s “Ghost chips” targeting road safety, were highly successful; a new school curriculum rolled out by 2012 included education on sexuality, physical safety, smoking, alcohol and drugs.

“This generation of young people have grown up in a highly restricted environment. We’ve put in a whole bunch of stuff that’s changed the climate in a relatively short period of time. When I grew up, I remember watching my teachers smoking while they watched us in the playground and I knew what brand of cigarette each of my teachers used.”

She accepts that social media plays a big role, with teens more likely to socialise “virtually” now than in real time.

University researcher Terryann Clark saw “huge behavioural change”. Photo/Angie Humphreys

Curiouser & curiouser

Wellington-based University of Otago public health research fellow Jude Ball describes the forces driving the change as “a perfect storm”, and says it can be difficult to differentiate cause and effect. For example, in the UK and US there have been big declines in the “night-time economy”, with clubs and bars closing. “Is it that young people aren’t going out as much and therefore places can’t make money so they close, or that young people haven’t got anywhere to go out to, so watch Netflix instead?”

She says that, oddly, the same declines have not been seen in countries such as Italy, Denmark and Austria, “and they all have teens with smartphones and social media, like we do. It is a real mystery, and the more I look into it, the more mysterious it becomes.”

She says most people would think risky teen behaviour was getting worse and happening earlier, and even she was “flabbergasted” to discover alcohol use declining, “because that’s not the impression you get from the media”.

Unlike Clark, she describes the regulatory environment around alcohol as “relaxed”, noting New Zealand lowered the drinking age to 18 in 1999. “You can get alcohol practically anywhere; there hasn’t been the tightening we’ve seen around tobacco.”

Public health research fellow Jude Ball.

The Youth2000 study also corroborated Twenge’s findings that secondary school students were much less likely to have a part-time job in 2012 than 2001 – down from 42% to 26%. Ball says it’s therefore possible that even though alcohol is becoming more “affordable” for the average adult earner, it may be becoming less affordable for teens because they have less money to spend.

She doesn’t believe increased social-media use is causing the decline in risky behaviour, saying a growing body of research shows the opposite: that young people who spend the most time socialising “virtually” are more likely to use substances, and engage in other delinquent behaviours, than those who are less social online.

Ball says her anecdotal impression is that many of today’s teens are more focused, smarter and more sensible than earlier generations. “I’m really impressed when I look at young people. They’re articulate, confident speaking to adults, and often very focused on where they want to go in life and what they want to do.

“Young people are doing what they’ve always done – trying to make sense of themselves, trying to make sense of the world and where they fit into it, with all the challenges and new technology we have. The challenges are different now, but I think young people are making a pretty good job of it.”

Professor of psychology Marc Wilson.

On the flipside

But Ball says she doesn’t want to imply that “everything is hunky-dory, either”, with perhaps 10-15% of the adolescent population “really struggling”.

Although the fact that teens are growing up more slowly seems a positive trend, their mental health is not improving correspondingly, and on some measures appears to be deteriorating.

Victoria University professor of psychology Marc Wilson, who heads a longitudinal youth well-being study of 1000 young people questioned every year for six years, says it’s important to recognise that “most young people are doing pretty well. But there appears to be a minority who aren’t doing so well, and we noticed that as they’re getting older, their mental health challenges are increasing, and this minority group is potentially getting bigger.”

The Victoria work found that almost one-third of high school students surveyed had self-harmed, to punish themselves or manage negative emotions, and nearly 20% had had suicidal thoughts.

Wilson wonders if teenagers are less likely to show their distress to the world, but more likely to experience it. “Things like depression and anxiety are what we think of as internalising, so maybe rather than turning emotional distress outwards, as in risky behaviours, they’re turning it inwards, and there’s not necessarily an equilibrium but a see-saw here.”

Researcher Simon Denny.

Better parenting

Youth2000 researcher Simon Denny, an associate professor at the University of Auckland’s department of paediatrics: child and youth health, says US sociologist Richard Settersten identified slow and fast tracks to adulthood that are largely determined by socio-economic status, resourcing and deprivation.

“There are teens who grow up too quickly, and the more modern phenomenon where they’re growing up much more slowly and being looked after by their parents into their twenties,” says Denny. “That is by far the healthier, more middle-class route. Those taking the quicker, earlier route are often young people from families who don’t have the same resources, and get into the workforce and into marriage too quickly. Their life outcomes are much more circumscribed.”

Apart from the effect of social media, which has “detrimental aspects”, especially for young women, he says teens could also be growing up more slowly because we’re actually getting better at parenting. “We now know that authoritative, punitive forms of parenting don’t work, and people have moved towards a more relational, collaborative style of parenting, which is much more effective.”

Ball says there’s evidence from the UK that parental monitoring has increased dramatically, particularly in lower socio-economic groups, and she wants to analyse the Youth2000 data to see if that’s modified risky teen behaviour here.

“It used to be that rich folks were careful about where their kids were and who they were with, whereas youngsters in lower socio-economic groups roamed a bit freer, but now they’re all very similar. You can be much more egalitarian and conversational with kids and want to know where they are and who they’re with in a way that’s not necessarily punitive, just ‘I care about you and want to know where you are’.”

Photo/Getty Images

Watching the world

Clark says she’s “mildly optimistic” the Youth2000 research, of which the Ministry of Social Development has been the key funder, will win another round of money so the survey can be extended and updated. She also works as a Child and Youth Friendly Cities co-ordinator for Whangarei City and says providing adequate incomes for families, and reducing inequity in society, is vital to give every child the same opportunity to thrive. “When you work in these communities and see the huge deprivation and lack of options and choices for these kids, it’s really heartbreaking, and it’s really hard to be optimistic with a child whose life is pretty awful.”

She says the internet and social media allow children not only to yearn for what others have, but also, more positively, to reflect on the increasingly visible outcomes of poor decisions played out online.

“I think young people are immensely wise. Part of standing back and watching the world and not participating in a lot of risk means you actually do get to observe, and say, ‘Yeah, that’s not a really clever thing to do.’ Young people say that when they watch the world, they worry about where it’s going. They want our world to be a better place, and they want to have a better life.”

This article was first published in the November 18, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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