Automation and Technology

In the book Messy, Tim Harford reveals some of the dangers of overconfidence in the increasing competency of technology. The most dramatic example is the unnecessary crash of Flight 447 with the loss of the lives of everyone on board. The plane was an Airbus 330, one of the world’s safest airplanes. The three pilots’ experiences made them overconfident. Instead of using technology to assist them, they abdicated their judgment and responsibility. It is a paradox that the likelihood of having serious outcomes increases from problems with technology as technology becomes more proficient.

This problem also exists in healthcare as doctors become more reliant on tests than on observation and patient interviews. We can also fall into the trap of expecting everything to be better with enhanced technology. The use of computer screens does not make everything better. Due to their efficiency, they are likely to increase vision-related problems. Most visual problems develop incrementally. It is fortunate that we do not notice every little change and it is usually an advantage that we are able to adapt. But adapting for this many hours a week can cause people to be unaware of or ignore problems which should be treated sooner.

This also applies to vision and driving. People who have not needed glasses to drive are often reluctant to accept when glasses will enhance their comfort and safety while driving. Seeing better can provide more time to make decisions, speed up reactions to sudden changes which need to be interpreted, and ameliorate the problems associated with night driving. Driving requires sustained attention and working memory. If seeing requires more effort and attention, the result can be similar to when people are talking on their phones; their useable visual field constricts.

This attitude about glasses and driving is not new. What is new is the response: “I don’t need glasses to drive. I have GPS.” Driving in unfamiliar places is stressful. Most of us do at least 95% of our driving where we know the roads and traffic patterns and know how we will get to our destination. Satellite navigation does help but it does not eliminate the importance of vision for judging distance and speed, and for seeing everything around us which an efficient visual system processes simultaneously. Vision enables us to see into the future and predict what will happen. It enables us to catch a ball. It also enables us to predict the movement of our car and those around us to avoid collisions.

We all have GPS stories. Problems occur when we are not using technology to assist us but to replace planning and judgment. Our GPS world is narrowed to what is on the screen and what we are being told. Tim Harford shares these examples.

Our learned helplessness in the hands of technology is sometimes more amusing than horrifying. In March 2012, three Japanese students visiting Australia decided to drive to North Stradbroke, guided by their GPS system. For some reason the GPS was not aware that their route was blocked by nine miles of the Pacific Ocean. These things happen, of course, but the reaction of the three tourists was extraordinary: in thrall to their technology, they drove their car on to the beach and across the mud flats towards the ocean. As the water lapped around their Hyundai, they realized, to their embarrassment, that they were stuck. With astonished ferry passengers looking on, the students abandoned their car and waded to shore. It’s fun to laugh at incompetent tourists. But it is also worth asking how on earth three sentient beings can drive into the Pacific Ocean on the instructions of GPS gone haywire.

The incident is far from unique. People following GPS guidance have driven their cars into a lake in Washington state, straight on a T-intersection and into a house in New Jersey, down a flight of stairs in Manhattan, along a rocky footpath to the brink of a cliff in Yorkshire and into a large sand pit at a construction site in Hamburg. This is known as automation bias; once a computer has made a recommendation, it is all too easy to accept that recommendation unthinkingly.

This is also an example of perceptual bias. Seeing is not passive. When we look, we usually have an expectation of what we will see. We recognize the object or person faster due to our expectation. Our perception is slower when we are just looking around without an expectation. But when our eyes are looking at something that is very different from what we expected, our perception may not only be slower, we may become temporarily overwhelmed and freeze. When this happens when we are driving, it may be humorous, but it may also be dangerous. Knowing that it is normal human behavior, Tim Harford suggests that a solution may be to require more human input (introduce a degree of messiness) even though it is not required by the technology.

For More:

Look To See

Narrative Medicine

The Positive Shift

What do I want for my Family, Friends, and Patients?

I want them to be happy, healthy, and visually efficient. While our focus is vision, vision is not assessed or treated in isolation. People come into our office who understand the importance of vision and comprehensive, personal vision care for their over-all well-being.

The Positive Shift by Catherine A. Sanderson is not the first book about the importance of a positive mindset, but it is a good reminder of what influences our health and outlook and what we can do to improve both through relatively modest and manageable changes in our lifestyle. The challenge is to live in the 21st century while not ignoring that which has evolved to be integral to our well-being. Changes in our environment and society have not changed these basic human needs. For example:

GET ADEQUATE REST: Many people are habitually sleep-deprived. Like all of these issues, inadequate rest has become the new normal. Sleep affects everything about us; our resilience to disease and stress, our ability to think and attend, our interest in what is important as opposed to what is exigent, and our resistance to the constant bombardment about things that we are told to worry about.

BE MORE ACTIVE: This does not have to be formal exercise. Take a walk, work in your garden, dance (even by yourself with no one watching), do some projects on your to-do list. These all generate more lasting satisfaction than just staring at electronic screens.

RETURN TO NATURE: While hiking is great, it can also be sitting or walking outside, tending a garden, bird watching, or looking out a window. It can be nature brought inside through houseplants. It can be being with your children, grandchildren, or dog outside. They will find fascinating things that did not attract our attention.

ESCAPE FROM ELECTRONICS: Electronics are an integral part of our lives, but we need to be their master, not their victim.  A large amount of research has been invented to design electronics to attract and hold our attention. We have become conditioned so smartphones now interfere with conversations just by being present. We need to escape them at times just as we sometimes need to escape our children.

SOCIALIZE IN PERSON: Especially with the important people in your life. Share what is on your mind and listen to what is on their mind, empathize, laugh, reminisce, and plan things to look forward to.

COMPARING OUR LIVES WITH OTHERS: is natural and unavoidable, but it can be destructive. We rarely know the real lives and feelings of others and don’t tend to compare with a balanced perspective. We almost always look at those who appear to have more of something than we do. This is particularly true with social media. The more time people spend on social media, the higher the rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide. Social media also has an opportunity cost. It robs us of time that we could be in nature, be doing something active, socialize, help others, and sleep.

HELP OTHERS: This is part of who we have always been. It has only been since our culture has become more self-centered that scientists have tried to explain altruism. Helping others has always been natural when we had to cooperate to survive. It is in our genes. Extra possessions provide little long-lasting satisfaction. In existential moments we do not think of what we could have had. We think of what we could have done. We are most fulfilled when we are working with others and helping others. This can be deceptive because it doesn’t shine on the outside, just on the inside.  

READ: especially fiction which explores the lives, problems, and decision-making of its characters. Many complex issues are falsely presented as simple by the news and by politicians. These dichotomous presentations help politicians get elected and hook the audience to constant news. The experiences of deeper reading help us work through our own perspective of life’s complex issues. Through deeper reading we see how others have tried to solve life’s questions and appreciate that life and these questions are not simple.  By taking us outside of ourselves, we develop more understanding and empathy. These understandings cannot develop through text messages and tweets.

THE MEANING OF LIFE: is a question for all of us. Sometimes we are too busy to give it much thought, but the question does not go away. Our answers will not all be the same and they may change over time as our circumstances and perspective change. Caring for and adequately providing for our families is a primary responsibility. Faith will be part of the answer for many people. Most meaning, however, comes from relationships. We are most fulfilled when we recognize this and prioritize appropriately.

For More:

Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?

Reading in the Brain: Part 1

The Enchanted Hour: Part 1

Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy

Curiosity and a Core Curriculum

Oliver Sacks-Reflections on Change: How Can We Adapt and Not Alter the Essence of Who We Are?

Oliver Sacks died in 2015, but an article that he wrote just before he died is in the February 11, 2019, issue of The New Yorker. It is a treat to read new reflections from this exceptional thinker from a stage of his life that we can only imagine. Dr. Sacks was a remarkable observer with an unparalleled ability to tell people’s stories. The importance of these stories is not how strange they are, but how they help us understand how we function normally and how precious and precarious the balance is which enables most of us to be “normal.”

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Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

We cannot stop change. Change is, change has been, and change will continue. Pronouncements about change can be valuable by bringing it to our attention so we make conscious decisions about what we will do. How can we and society adapt to change without changing that which is essential to our humanity? Change started to accelerate a few hundred years ago with the advent of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. The essence of who we are has been a topic for religion and philosophers for thousands of years. We can refer to what they have said, but the answer to this question is very personal.

Read the article here:

The Machine Stops-Oliver Sacks

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More posts including Oliver Sacks:

Mapping the Wilds of Mortality and Fatherhood

Narrative Medicine

Memory Book

The River of Consciousness

The Mind’s Eye: Oliver Sacks

Not ALL Screen Time IS Equal: Reflections and Perspectives on the Use of Electronics

In an article in the January 22, 2018, issue of The Wall Street Journal by technology columnist Christopher Mims entitled “Not All Screen Time Is Equal”, Mr. Mims suggests that it is time to stop worrying about limiting screen time and time to switch our focus to what children are doing on their screens. Activities should be educational, not play. But play is not bad. Play with other children is the best way for them to learn many of the most important things. There is a photo at the top of the article of a less-than-two-year-old-boy leaning over, inches away from a screen that is illuminating his face. What is it that this child can learn best from a tablet? This article would have been better if it was co-authored with a columnist whose specialty is child development. One of the most common errors made in making decisions and recommendations occurs when information is missing, and its absence is not recognized.

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Mr. Mims states, “Extraordinary learning is what happens when children’s interests turn to passion.” Putting aside concerns about the addictive nature of electronics, especially for very young children, and putting aside visual concerns, which are not trivial, what should children be learning and what is the best way? While you are reading my list, I am sure that you will think of things that I have missed.

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Children need to learn who they are and who they are becoming. They need to move to learn about their bodies and to learn about space, develop strength and coordination, take risks (rolling over is an early one), and discover their limits. They need to go outside and get dirty to nurture their immune systems. They need to develop language which emerges through communication with family members. They need to learn how the world works; what they can control and what they cannot. They need to start to understand uncertainty and how that can affect them and that the rules of life are not always like the rules of a computer program.

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They need to develop character. This includes respect, manners, responsibility, organization, honesty, empathy, helpfulness, impulse control, working together, deciding what to play and what the rules will be, doing what you want to do sometimes and learning to enjoy doing what others want to do at other times, patience, taking turns, pretending with others, hygiene, and reading how others feel. They need to learn how to manage their emotions. They need to learn that they are important, but that they are not the center of the world. They also need to learn how to attend. Being fixed on a screen which was designed to be addictive (remember, this is a business), is not teaching the attentional skills needed in a classroom. The Distraction Addiction Children also need to learn to say and mean, “please”, “thank you”, and “may I?” And learning these skills needs to be supported by role models.

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The primary purpose of a brain is to plan, direct, and monitor movement. Movement through space enables us to develop problem-solving abilities as it provides feedback and consequences that matter; climbing, hopping, skipping, going up-and-down stairs, jumping, building towers of blocks, rolling to develop our vestibular systems, scribbling, cutting, pumping a swing, running downhill, riding a tricycle and then a bicycle, hanging on monkey bars, throwing and catching, lifting heavy objects, getting into small spaces, washing hands, and tying laces. Many of the children who are receiving occupational therapy and physical therapy and many who are overweight, would not have these problems if they had played as generations of children have played.

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Opportunity cost is often overlooked, but what would children be doing without electronics? When the television and Mario Brothers went off, our children found things to do. There seems to be a fear of children being bored. Being bored or doing mindless tasks is an opportunity for minds to wander. If we are always engaged, we don’t have time to think about anything other than the present. For example, digesting this article did not stop when I read the last word.  As I was vacuuming, some of the statements and the photo kept running through my mind and meshed with other things that I have read and observed. When and where do you do your best thinking and problem solving?

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The challenge with electronics is to take advantage of what it can do for us and not have it control our lives. The statistics about the use of electronics and depression, anxiety, and suicide are sobering and this, too, needs to be kept in mind.

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Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? by Jean M. Twenge

BALANCE

Reclaiming Childhood:Letting Children Be Children in Our Achievement Oriented Society

A More Beautiful Question:The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas

Will it break to the right?

Warren Berger

I read this book a few years ago and put the summary aside. I went back to look at my review to see how it held up to the test of time; a test that we don’t have as much time for today. Reading – or just scanning – the excerpts is what we will tend to do. But they would be better on a page-a-day calendar. Turn the page and think for a moment. As we all feel the urge to move on, I hope that these questions about questioning cause you to pause.

The neurologist John Kounios observes that the brain finds ways to “reduce our mental workload”, and one way is to accept without question (or even just ignore) much of what is going on around us at any time.

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Problem-finding is one of the most important things to do for an established business.

Today, the idea of “sitting with” and “living with” a question may seem strange, as we’ve gotten used to having our queries answered quickly and in bite-size servings.

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One of the big questions Tiffany Shlain is “sitting with” these days involves our “love/hate relationship with technology. We’re so enamored of it that we’re not asking questions like ‘What is all of this technology taking away from us?”

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The more preschool models itself after regular school – the more it becomes a venue for loading kids up with information and feeding them answers to questions they have not yet asked – the more it seems to squelch their natural curiosity.

Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? by Jean M. Twenge

The steep decline in questioning might not be alarming, in and of itself: One might conclude that children just don’t need to question as much once they’re reading and writing (and texting and googling). But the problem is, as kids stop questioning, they simultaneously become less engaged in school.

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“Somehow, we’ve defined the goal of schooling as enabling you to have more ‘right answers’ than the person next to you. And we penalize incorrect answers. And we do this at a pace – especially now, in this highly focused test-prep universe – where we don’t have time for extraneous questions.”

 “I’ve always been very concerned with democracy. If you can’t imagine you could be wrong, what’s the point of democracy? And if you can’t imagine how or why others think differently, then how could you tolerate democracy?”

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Research found that questions were often used by teachers primarily to check up on students, rather than to try to spark interest; such questions were apt to leave a student feeling “exposed” rather than “inspired.”

When you are anxious, you tend to become less creative and imaginative.

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Increasingly, it is understood that people tend to do their best creative thinking – particularly in coming up with fresh insights and random associations by way of connective inquiry – in informal, relaxed settings, when they’re not really trying.

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The main premise of appreciative inquiry is that positive questions, focusing on the strengths and assets, tend to yield more effective results than negative questions focusing on problems or deficits. People are more likely to take constructive action when they feel hopeful and recognize all they have going for them already.

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Grit

Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? by Jean M. Twenge

A for Effort

The Knowledge Illusion Why We Never Think Alone

Sleights of Mind

The Importance of Being Little

Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? by Jean M. Twenge

My immediate concerns about smartphone use is their potential to cause eyestrain and their tendency to interfere with sleep. Jean M. Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University. Due to her professional orientation, she doesn’t mention vision but discusses psychological and social problems related to smartphone use. Her article, which you can access  below, is adapted from her forthcoming 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.  I am looking forward to examining the book to investigate the sources of her statistics.

Jean Twenge has been doing research on generational change for 25 years and has analyzed generational data going as far back as the 1930s. While we label generations as discrete entities, generational changes are typically gradual. Twenge started to see the first sharp changes in the data around 2012, just at the time most Americans owned a smartphone. “The smartphone is cutting into teens’ sleep. Fifty-seven percent more teens were sleep deprived in 2015 than in 1991. In just the four years from 2012 to 2015, 22 percent more teens failed to get seven hours of sleep.” “The experiences that teens have today are radically different from those of the generation that came of age just a few years before them.” “More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party, todays’ teens are physically safer than teens have ever been…. Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011.”

“The allure of independence, so powerful to previous generations, holds less sway over today’s teens…. The shift is stunning: 12th graders in 2015 were going out less often than eighth-graders did as recently as 2009…. The decline in dating tracks with a decline in sexual activity…. The teen birth rate hit an all-time low in 2016, down 17 percent since its modern peak, in 1991.” “Nearly all Boomer high-school students had their driver’s license by the spring of their senior year; more than one in four teens today still lack one at the end of high school.”

“The number of teens who get together with their friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2015.” “The Monitoring of the Future survey, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and designed to be nationally representative, has asked 12th-graders more than 1,000 questions every year since 1975 and queried 8th – and 10th-graders since 1991.” The results could not be clearer: Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy.”

“At the generational level, when teens spend more time on smartphones and less time on in-person social interactions, loneliness is more common. So is depression.” “In 2011, for the first time in 24 years, the teen suicide rate was higher than the teen homicide rate.”

Parenting isn’t easy and it seems to be getting more challenging. How do you define responsible use of electronic devices and how can it be reinforced? The information in this article makes controlling the use of these devices even more important than my professional concern about eyestrain and lack of sleep. Smartphones have the potential to be addictive to students and to adults. They promise connection while often enabling isolation. It has become common to go into our reception room to greet a patient only to be unseen because everyone is concentrating on their electronic device. Perhaps this information will cause more people to start to see this as more than an inevitable and uncontrollable phenomenon.  I advise my teenage patients to keep smartphones out of their bedrooms, but they are using them as alarms and often have them in bed with them. The answer is not to go back to a “better time”. The answer is to learn to control our use of technology and to help young people become the master of these technologies instead of having the technologies control them.

Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?

Jean M. Twenge

 

More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.

Jasu Hu 

One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”

Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”

I’ve been researching generational differences for 25 years, starting when I was a 22-year-old doctoral student in psychology. Typically, the characteristics that come to define a generation appear gradually, and along a continuum. Beliefs and behaviors that were already rising simply continue to do so. Millennials, for instance, are a highly individualistic generation, but individualism had been increasing since the Baby Boomers turned on, tuned in, and dropped out. I had grown accustomed to line graphs of trends that looked like modest hills and valleys. Then I began studying Athena’s generation.

Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs, and many of the distinctive characteristics of the Millennial generation began to disappear. In all my analyses of generational data—some reaching back to the 1930s—I had never seen anything like it.

At first I presumed these might be blips, but the trends persisted, across several years and a series of national surveys. The changes weren’t just in degree, but in kind. The biggest difference between the Millennials and their predecessors was in how they viewed the world; teens today differ from the Millennials not just in their views but in how they spend their time. The experiences they have every day are radically different from those of the generation that came of age just a few years before them.

What happened in 2012 to cause such dramatic shifts in behavior? It was after the Great Recession, which officially lasted from 2007 to 2009 and had a starker effect on Millennials trying to find a place in a sputtering economy. But it was exactly the moment when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent.

The more I pored over yearly surveys of teen attitudes and behaviors, and the more I talked with young people like Athena, the clearer it became that theirs is a generation shaped by the smartphone and by the concomitant rise of social media. I call them iGen. Born between 1995 and 2012, members of this generation are growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet. The Millennials grew up with the web as well, but it wasn’t ever-present in their lives, at hand at all times, day and night. iGen’s oldest members were early adolescents when the iPhone was introduced, in 2007, and high-school students when the iPad entered the scene, in 2010. A 2017 survey of more than 5,000 American teens found that three out of four owned an iPhone.

The advent of the smartphone and its cousin the tablet was followed quickly by hand-wringing about the deleterious effects of “screen time.” But the impact of these devices has not been fully appreciated, and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans. The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.

To those of us who fondly recall a more analog adolescence, this may seem foreign and troubling. The aim of generational study, however, is not to succumb to nostalgia for the way things used to be; it’s to understand how they are now. Some generational changes are positive, some are negative, and many are both. More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party, today’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been. They’re markedly less likely to get into a car accident and, having less of a taste for alcohol than their predecessors, are less susceptible to drinking’s attendant ills.Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.

Even when a seismic event—a war, a technological leap, a free concert in the mud—plays an outsize role in shaping a group of young people, no single factor ever defines a generation. Parenting styles continue to change, as do school curricula and culture, and these things matter. But the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.

In the early 1970s, the photographer Bill Yates shot a series of portraits at the Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink in Tampa, Florida. In one, a shirtless teen stands with a large bottle of peppermint schnapps stuck in the waistband of his jeans. In another, a boy who looks no older than 12 poses with a cigarette in his mouth. The rink was a place where kids could get away from their parents and inhabit a world of their own, a world where they could drink, smoke, and make out in the backs of their cars. In stark black-and-white, the adolescent Boomers gaze at Yates’s camera with the self-confidence born of making your own choices—even if, perhaps especially if, your parents wouldn’t think they were the right ones.

Fifteen years later, during my own teenage years as a member of Generation X, smoking had lost some of its romance, but independence was definitely still in. My friends and I plotted to get our driver’s license as soon as we could, making DMV appointments for the day we turned 16 and using our newfound freedom to escape the confines of our suburban neighborhood. Asked by our parents, “When will you be home?,” we replied, “When do I have to be?”

But the allure of independence, so powerful to previous generations, holds less sway over today’s teens, who are less likely to leave the house without their parents. The shift is stunning: 12th-graders in 2015 were going out less often than eighth-graders did as recently as 2009.

Today’s teens are also less likely to date. The initial stage of courtship, which Gen Xers called “liking” (as in “Ooh, he likes you!”), kids now call “talking”—an ironic choice for a generation that prefers texting to actual conversation. After two teens have “talked” for a while, they might start dating. But only about 56 percent of high-school seniors in 2015 went out on dates; for Boomers and Gen Xers, the number was about 85 percent.The decline in dating tracks with a decline in sexual activity. The drop is the sharpest for ninth-graders, among whom the number of sexually active teens has been cut by almost 40 percent since 1991. The average teen now has had sex for the first time by the spring of 11th grade, a full year later than the average Gen Xer. Fewer teens having sex has contributed to what many see as one of the most positive youth trends in recent years: The teen birth rate hit an all-time low in 2016, down 67 percent since its modern peak, in 1991.

Even driving, a symbol of adolescent freedom inscribed in American popular culture, from Rebel Without a Cause to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, has lost its appeal for today’s teens. Nearly all Boomer high-school students had their driver’s license by the spring of their senior year; more than one in four teens today still lack one at the end of high school. For some, Mom and Dad are such good chauffeurs that there’s no urgent need to drive. “My parents drove me everywhere and never complained, so I always had rides,” a 21-year-old student in San Diego told me. “I didn’t get my license until my mom told me I had to because she could not keep driving me to school.” She finally got her license six months after her 18th birthday. In conversation after conversation, teens described getting their license as something to be nagged into by their parents—a notion that would have been unthinkable to previous generations.

Independence isn’t free—you need some money in your pocket to pay for gas, or for that bottle of schnapps. In earlier eras, kids worked in great numbers, eager to finance their freedom or prodded by their parents to learn the value of a dollar. But iGen teens aren’t working (or managing their own money) as much. In the late 1970s, 77 percent of high-school seniors worked for pay during the school year; by the mid-2010s, only 55 percent did. The number of eighth-graders who work for pay has been cut in half. These declines accelerated during the Great Recession, but teen employment has not bounced back, even though job availability has.Of course, putting off the responsibilities of adulthood is not an iGen innovation. Gen Xers, in the 1990s, were the first to postpone the traditional markers of adulthood. Young Gen Xers were just about as likely to drive, drink alcohol, and date as young Boomers had been, and more likely to have sex and get pregnant as teens. But as they left their teenage years behind, Gen Xers married and started careers later than their Boomer predecessors had.

Gen X managed to stretch adolescence beyond all previous limits: Its members started becoming adults earlier and finished becoming adults later. Beginning with Millennials and continuing with iGen, adolescence is contracting again—but only because its onset is being delayed. Across a range of behaviors—drinking, dating, spending time unsupervised— 18-year-olds now act more like 15-year-olds used to, and 15-year-olds more like 13-year-olds. Childhood now stretches well into high school.

Why are today’s teens waiting longer to take on both the responsibilities and the pleasures of adulthood? Shifts in the economy, and parenting, certainly play a role. In an information economy that rewards higher education more than early work history, parents may be inclined to encourage their kids to stay home and study rather than to get a part-time job. Teens, in turn, seem to be content with this homebody arrangement—not because they’re so studious, but because their social life is lived on their phone. They don’t need to leave home to spend time with their friends.If today’s teens were a generation of grinds, we’d see that in the data. But eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-graders in the 2010s actually spend less time on homework than Gen X teens did in the early 1990s. (High-school seniors headed for four-year colleges spend about the same amount of time on homework as their predecessors did.) The time that seniors spend on activities such as student clubs and sports and exercise has changed little in recent years. Combined with the decline in working for pay, this means iGen teens have more leisure time than Gen X teens did, not less.

So what are they doing with all that time? They are on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed.

Jasu Hu

One of the ironies of iGen life is that despite spending far more time under the same roof as their parents, today’s teens can hardly be said to be closer to their mothers and fathers than their predecessors were. “I’ve seen my friends with their families—they don’t talk to them,” Athena told me. “They just say ‘Okay, okay, whatever’ while they’re on their phones. They don’t pay attention to their family.” Like her peers, Athena is an expert at tuning out her parents so she can focus on her phone. She spent much of her summer keeping up with friends, but nearly all of it was over text or Snapchat. “I’ve been on my phone more than I’ve been with actual people,” she said. “My bed has, like, an imprint of my body.”

In this, too, she is typical. The number of teens who get together with their friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2015; the decline has been especially steep recently. It’s not only a matter of fewer kids partying; fewer kids are spending time simply hanging out. That’s something most teens used to do: nerds and jocks, poor kids and rich kids, C students and A students. The roller rink, the basketball court, the town pool, the local necking spot—they’ve all been replaced by virtual spaces accessed through apps and the web.You might expect that teens spend so much time in these new spaces because it makes them happy, but most data suggest that it does not. The Monitoring the Future survey, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and designed to be nationally representative, has asked 12th-graders more than 1,000 questions every year since 1975 and queried eighth- and 10th-graders since 1991. The survey asks teens how happy they are and also how much of their leisure time they spend on various activities, including nonscreen activities such as in-person social interaction and exercise, and, in recent years, screen activities such as using social media, texting, and browsing the web. The results could not be clearer: Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy.

There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness. Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who devote less time to social media. Admittedly, 10 hours a week is a lot. But those who spend six to nine hours a week on social media are still 47 percent more likely to say they are unhappy than those who use social media even less. The opposite is true of in-person interactions. Those who spend an above-average amount of time with their friends in person are 20 percent less likely to say they’re unhappy than those who hang out for a below-average amount of time.

If you were going to give advice for a happy adolescence based on this survey, it would be straightforward: Put down the phone, turn off the laptop, and do something—anything—that does not involve a screen. Of course, these analyses don’t unequivocally prove that screen time causes unhappiness; it’s possible that unhappy teens spend more time online. But recent research suggests that screen time, in particular social-media use, does indeed cause unhappiness. One study asked college students with a Facebook page to complete short surveys on their phone over the course of two weeks. They’d get a text message with a link five times a day, and report on their mood and how much they’d used Facebook. The more they’d used Facebook, the unhappier they felt, but feeling unhappy did not subsequently lead to more Facebook use.

Social-networking sites like Facebook promise to connect us to friends. But the portrait of iGen teens emerging from the data is one of a lonely, dislocated generation. Teens who visit social-networking sites every day but see their friends in person less frequently are the most likely to agree with the statements “A lot of times I feel lonely,” “I often feel left out of things,” and “I often wish I had more good friends.” Teens’ feelings of loneliness spiked in 2013 and have remained high since.This doesn’t always mean that, on an individual level, kids who spend more time online are lonelier than kids who spend less time online. Teens who spend more time on social media also spend more time with their friends in person, on average—highly social teens are more social in both venues, and less social teens are less so. But at the generational level, when teens spend more time on smartphones and less time on in-person social interactions, loneliness is more common.

So is depression. Once again, the effect of screen activities is unmistakable: The more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression. Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent, while those who play sports, go to religious services, or even do homework more than the average teen cut their risk significantly.

Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide, such as making a suicide plan. (That’s much more than the risk related to, say, watching TV.) One piece of data that indirectly but stunningly captures kids’ growing isolation, for good and for bad: Since 2007, the homicide rate among teens has declined, but the suicide rate has increased. As teens have started spending less time together, they have become less likely to kill one another, and more likely to kill themselves. In 2011, for the first time in 24 years, the teen suicide rate was higher than the teen homicide rate.

Depression and suicide have many causes; too much technology is clearly not the only one. And the teen suicide rate was even higher in the 1990s, long before smartphones existed. Then again, about four times as many Americans now take antidepressants, which are often effective in treating severe depression, the type most strongly linked to suicide.

What’s the connection between smartphones and the apparent psychological distress this generation is experiencing? For all their power to link kids day and night, social media also exacerbate the age-old teen concern about being left out. Today’s teens may go to fewer parties and spend less time together in person, but when they do congregate, they document their hangouts relentlessly—on Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook. Those not invited to come along are keenly aware of it. Accordingly, the number of teens who feel left out has reached all-time highs across age groups. Like the increase in loneliness, the upswing in feeling left out has been swift and significant.

This trend has been especially steep among girls. Forty-eight percent more girls said they often felt left out in 2015 than in 2010, compared with 27 percent more boys. Girls use social media more often, giving them additional opportunities to feel excluded and lonely when they see their friends or classmates getting together without them. Social media levy a psychic tax on the teen doing the posting as well, as she anxiously awaits the affirmation of comments and likes. When Athena posts pictures to Instagram, she told me, “I’m nervous about what people think and are going to say. It sometimes bugs me when I don’t get a certain amount of likes on a picture.”

Girls have also borne the brunt of the rise in depressive symptoms among today’s teens. Boys’ depressive symptoms increased by 21 percent from 2012 to 2015, while girls’ increased by 50 percent—more than twice as much. The rise in suicide, too, is more pronounced among girls. Although the rate increased for both sexes, three times as many 12-to-14-year-old girls killed themselves in 2015 as in 2007, compared with twice as many boys. The suicide rate is still higher for boys, in part because they use more-lethal methods, but girls are beginning to close the gap.These more dire consequences for teenage girls could also be rooted in the fact that they’re more likely to experience cyberbullying. Boys tend to bully one another physically, while girls are more likely to do so by undermining a victim’s social status or relationships. Social media give middle- and high-school girls a platform on which to carry out the style of aggression they favor, ostracizing and excluding other girls around the clock.

Social-media companies are of course aware of these problems, and to one degree or another have endeavored to prevent cyberbullying. But their various motivations are, to say the least, complex. A recently leaked Facebook document indicated that the company had been touting to advertisers its ability to determine teens’ emotional state based on their on-site behavior, and even to pinpoint “moments when young people need a confidence boost.” Facebook acknowledged that the document was real, but denied that it offers “tools to target people based on their emotional state.”

In July 2014, a 13-year-old girl in North Texas woke to the smell of something burning. Her phone had overheated and melted into the sheets. National news outlets picked up the story, stoking readers’ fears that their cellphone might spontaneously combust. To me, however, the flaming cellphone wasn’t the only surprising aspect of the story. Why, I wondered, would anyone sleep with her phone beside her in bed? It’s not as though you can surf the web while you’re sleeping. And who could slumber deeply inches from a buzzing phone?

Curious, I asked my undergraduate students at San Diego State University what they do with their phone while they sleep. Their answers were a profile in obsession. Nearly all slept with their phone, putting it under their pillow, on the mattress, or at the very least within arm’s reach of the bed. They checked social media right before they went to sleep, and reached for their phone as soon as they woke up in the morning (they had to—all of them used it as their alarm clock). Their phone was the last thing they saw before they went to sleep and the first thing they saw when they woke up. If they woke in the middle of the night, they often ended up looking at their phone. Some used the language of addiction. “I know I shouldn’t, but I just can’t help it,” one said about looking at her phone while in bed. Others saw their phone as an extension of their body—or even like a lover: “Having my phone closer to me while I’m sleeping is a comfort.”

It may be a comfort, but the smartphone is cutting into teens’ sleep: Many now sleep less than seven hours most nights. Sleep experts say that teens should get about nine hours of sleep a night; a teen who is getting less than seven hours a night is significantly sleep deprived. Fifty-seven percent more teens were sleep deprived in 2015 than in 1991. In just the four years from 2012 to 2015, 22 percent more teens failed to get seven hours of sleep.The increase is suspiciously timed, once again starting around when most teens got a smartphone. Two national surveys show that teens who spend three or more hours a day on electronic devices are 28 percent more likely to get less than seven hours of sleep than those who spend fewer than three hours, and teens who visit social-media sites every day are 19 percent more likely to be sleep deprived. A meta-analysis of studies on electronic-device use among children found similar results: Children who use a media device right before bed are more likely to sleep less than they should, more likely to sleep poorly, and more than twice as likely to be sleepy during the day.

Electronic devices and social media seem to have an especially strong ability to disrupt sleep. Teens who read books and magazines more often than the average are actually slightly less likely to be sleep deprived—either reading lulls them to sleep, or they can put the book down at bedtime. Watching TV for several hours a day is only weakly linked to sleeping less. But the allure of the smartphone is often too much to resist.

Sleep deprivation is linked to myriad issues, including compromised thinking and reasoning, susceptibility to illness, weight gain, and high blood pressure. It also affects mood: People who don’t sleep enough are prone to depression and anxiety. Again, it’s difficult to trace the precise paths of causation. Smartphones could be causing lack of sleep, which leads to depression, or the phones could be causing depression, which leads to lack of sleep. Or some other factor could be causing both depression and sleep deprivation to rise. But the smartphone, its blue light glowing in the dark, is likely playing a nefarious role.

The correlations between depression and smartphone use are strong enough to suggest that more parents should be telling their kids to put down their phone. As the technology writer Nick Bilton has reported, it’s a policy some Silicon Valley executives follow. Even Steve Jobs limited his kids’ use of the devices he brought into the world.

What’s at stake isn’t just how kids experience adolescence. The constant presence of smartphones is likely to affect them well into adulthood. Among people who suffer an episode of depression, at least half become depressed again later in life. Adolescence is a key time for developing social skills; as teens spend less time with their friends face-to-face, they have fewer opportunities to practice them. In the next decade, we may see more adults who know just the right emoji for a situation, but not the right facial expression.

I realize that restricting technology might be an unrealistic demand to impose on a generation of kids so accustomed to being wired at all times. My three daughters were born in 2006, 2009, and 2012. They’re not yet old enough to display the traits of iGen teens, but I have already witnessed firsthand just how ingrained new media are in their young lives. I’ve observed my toddler, barely old enough to walk, confidently swiping her way through an iPad. I’ve experienced my 6-year-old asking for her own cellphone. I’ve overheard my 9-year-old discussing the latest app to sweep the fourth grade. Prying the phone out of our kids’ hands will be difficult, even more so than the quixotic efforts of my parents’ generation to get their kids to turn off MTV and get some fresh air. But more seems to be at stake in urging teens to use their phone responsibly, and there are benefits to be gained even if all we instill in our children is the importance of moderation. Significant effects on both mental health and sleep time appear after two or more hours a day on electronic devices. The average teen spends about two and a half hours a day on electronic devices. Some mild boundary-setting could keep kids from falling into harmful habits.In my conversations with teens, I saw hopeful signs that kids themselves are beginning to link some of their troubles to their ever-present phone. Athena told me that when she does spend time with her friends in person, they are often looking at their device instead of at her. “I’m trying to talk to them about something, and they don’t actually look at my face,” she said. “They’re looking at their phone, or they’re looking at their Apple Watch.” “What does that feel like, when you’re trying to talk to somebody face-to-face and they’re not looking at you?,” I asked. “It kind of hurts,” she said. “It hurts. I know my parents’ generation didn’t do that. I could be talking about something super important to me, and they wouldn’t even be listening.”

Once, she told me, she was hanging out with a friend who was texting her boyfriend. “I was trying to talk to her about my family, and what was going on, and she was like, ‘Uh-huh, yeah, whatever.’ So I took her phone out of her hands and I threw it at my wall.”

I couldn’t help laughing. “You play volleyball,” I said. “Do you have a pretty good arm?” “Yep,” she replied.


This article has been adapted from Jean M. Twenge’s forthcoming 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


About the Author


 

 

Reclaiming Conversation

Sherry Turkle

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Conversation is becoming a lost art, particularly in the younger generations who primarily use electronic connections instead of face-to-face conversation. In Reclaiming Conversation Sherry Turkle explores what we lose when we substitute texting for talking. The constant distraction of electronic interruptions, or even just having a smart phone nearby, compromises sustained attention and the quiet which is necessary to think, plan, solve problems and to be creative. The early use of electronic media to keep children busy is an influence on their development. This is due as much to the opportunity cost of what children are not doing when they are captivated by electronics as it is due to their use of the device. Parents’ use of electronic media distracts them from conversations with their children, which is critical for the development of language and of conversational skills.

“Reclaiming conversation begins with the acknowledgment that speaking and listening with attention are skills. They can be taught.” P. 14 A conversation, not just a chat, requires the availability of working memory, more than is required for many tasks requiring multitasking. “Human relationships are rich, messy, and demanding. When we clean them up with technology, we move from conversation to the efficiency of mere connection. I fear that we forget the difference.” P. 21 “In person, we have access to the messages carried in the face, the voice and the body.” p. 23 This large amount of information is what causes many people with autism to look away during conversations to enable them to not be overloaded.

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“Face-to-face conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. We attend to tone and nuance. When we communicate with digital devices, we learn different habits. As we ramp up the volume and velocity of our online connections, we want immediate answers. In order to get them, we ask simpler questions; we dumb down our communication even on the most important matters. And we become accustomed to a life of constant interruption.” P. 35 “We teach children the outward manifestations of full attention because we hope that by working backward from behavior we can get them to a more profound feeling state. Eye contact is the most powerful path to human connection. ” p. 36

Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel

“Reclaiming conversation begins with reclaiming our attention. These days, average American adults check their phones every six and a half minutes. Most teenagers send one hundred texts a day. Multitasking degrades our performance in everything that we do, all the while giving us the feeling that we are doing better at everything.” p. 42

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Using the Internet potentially gives us the possibility of accessing many different perspectives but instead tends to cause a more rigid partisanship as the computer feeds us information consistent with our electronic profile. Interactions with people in your physical communities tend to expose you to a greater variety of views. “The Internet gives us the possibility of sharing our views with anyone in the world, but can also support information silos when we don’t talk with anyone who doesn’t agree with us. When politics goes online, people begin to talk about political action in terms of things they can do online. The slow, hard work of politics – study, analysis, listening, trying to convince someone with a different point of view – they can get lost. I have said that technology gives us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Now I worry that it can also give us the illusion of progress without the demands of action.” P. 50

Paul Tillich has said: “Language has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word solitude to express the glory of being alone.” P. 65 Developing the capacity for solitude is one of the most important tasks of childhood, every childhood.” P. 61 “Without solitude, in days and nights of continued connection, we may experience ‘moments of more’ but lives of less.” P. 66 “Conversation, like literary fiction, asks for imagination and engagement. And conversation, like literary fiction, demands quiet time.” P. 69

When schools give children iPads, they are asking students to work from the very devices that distract them. These devices are successful in their intent. “If we feel ‘addicted to our phones’, it is not a personal weakness. We are exhibiting a predictable response to a perfected design.” P. 126

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“Family conversation is a place to learn that you can talk things out rather than act them out. Family conversation also teaches that some things take time to sort through – quite a bit of time. And that it is possible to find this time because there are people who will take the time.” P. 116 “From infancy, the foundations for emotional stability and social fluency are developed when children make eye contact and interact with active, engaged faces.” P. 108 “Our phones are seductive. When they are around, we are vulnerable to ignoring the people we love.” P. 114 We see acts of disrespect that would not take place or be accepted if it wasn’t for electronic devices, but their apparent acceptance does not mean that they do not influence relationships. “Our phones give the false sense of demanding little and giving a lot.” P. 124 “These days, day to day, teenagers choose to use texting more than any other form of communication.” P. 139

“The work of Daniel Siegel has taught us that children need eye contact to develop parts of the brain that are involved with attachment. The parts of the brain that allow us to process another person’s feelings and intentions are activated by eye contact.” P. 170 “But our technologies have not only changed what we do, they have changed who we are. And nowhere as profoundly as in our capacity for empathy. For Rowan Williams, the empathic relationship doesn’t begin with ‘I know how you feel.’ It begins with the realization that you don’t know how another feels. In that ignorance, you begin with an offer of conversation.” P. 172

“A lot is at stake in attention. Where we put it is not only how we decide what we will learn, it is how we show what we value.” P. 213 “Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist at Tufts University, has studied what skimming, scanning, and scrolling do to our ability to read with deep attention – what she calls ‘deep reading’. Her thesis is that a life lived online makes deep attention harder to summon. This happens because the brain is plastic – it is constantly in flux over a lifetime – so it ‘rewrites’ itself depending on how attention is allocated.” P. 221

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While data is available almost instantly on the web, data is not information until it is interpreted and integrated with other information and experience. To have a substantiated opinion, you must weigh the options and consider the consequences of your decision. This process is dependent on the ability to hold multiple pieces of information in your working memory as this ability is necessary to explain and defend your decision. “We think with what we know; we use what we know to ask new questions.” P. 224

“Freedom of the mind requires not only, or not even especially, the absence of legal constraints but the presence of alternative thoughts. The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity, but the one that removes awareness of other possibilities.” Allan Bloom p. 307

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