Understanding the iPhone Cohort

Jean Twenge, a social psychologist from San Diego State University, writes about generation effects. The term I would use is cohort effect. When I talked about methods used for developmental psychology, I would describe the longitudinal and cross section methods and identify limitations of each method. I would suggest that a combination of these methods had some benefit because of the need to differentiate patterns purely associated with age from cohort effects. What Twenge calls generation effects I described as cohort effects. A cohort is a group of individuals who have been through similar experiences. Individuals of a given age at a given time represent a cohort, but not individuals of a given age from different times. When teaching, I tried to explain the difference using myself as an example. I would explain that when I was their age I was drafted and the reality of the draft and being sent to Viet Nam influenced those of my generation at their age in ways that they did not have to think about. Of course, I added, you face challenges that never concerned me at your age.

Parents and educators are typically of a different cohort than the children they work with. It is worth recognizing that personal experiences at a given age parents and teachers can be deceptive when parents and teachers use such experiences to understand the perspective of children and students now at a similar age.  In fact, even when parents and teachers think they have the perspective of young people figured out factors can change and they find they are working with a different cohort of the same age.

Twenge proposes that the iGen represents a distinct cohort. The oldest members of the iGen were young adolescents when the iPhone was introduced in 2007. In 2015, she claims ? of U.S. teenagers own an iphone.

Twenge uses a mixed methods approach. She relies on several large scale national surveys to establish behaviors or positions associated with individuals of a given age and then uses interviews to provide examples of these behaviors or positions and to search for possible explanations. The conclusions she reaches have been criticized as arguing causation from correlational methodologies. She does recognize this issue at many points in her book, but tries to refute likely counter arguments. These are also likely issues that would be impossible to explore with experimental approaches. Manipulating issues such as level of cell phone use, extent of parental supervision, or depression would be difficult to manipulate. In many cases, it is the direction of the relationahip among two variables that would be at issue – e.g., depression and low levels of face to face interaction with peers.

What I find potentially useful about this book is the opportunity to use it with educators as a way to challenge what might be existing assumptions about their students and to engage in a discussion of whether the connections Twenge proposes might be explained in some other way. The book itself is a long read, and some conclusions are provided elsewhere.

Twenge identifies a combination of positive and negative behaviors and characteristics in iGeners and sometimes argues that positive characteristics in the short term have negative consequences long term. Using cell phones and social media are not argued to be responsible for all of the characteristics and trends associated with this cohort, but the consequences of phone use are argued to be important in many.

Some exampes. iGeners are less likely to interact directly with peers, less likely to get a driver’s license when available, less likely to work as adolescents, less likely to have sex at a younger age, less likely to read long form content, more likely to be anxious and depressed. Twenge argues that many of the positive behaviors/experiences (less sex and other risky behaviors, less need to venture out with peers) end up poorly preparing these young people for the freedom and pressures of college.

She claims the dependence on the cell phone limits interaction, encourages a passive and home-based existence, and creates self doubt associated with exposure to online ideals and a constant need for likes and approval.

Twenge does have a chapter on Solutions.  She proposes later access to phones, use of SnapChat rather than other forms of social media that allow group based, extended exposure, and parents doing less (driving) and being less protective (allowing more freedom for face to face experiences) to develop skills necessary for later independence.

I do propose that educators need to ponder the arguments Twenge makes.