A Zoomer explains her generation’s malaise to older generations
I was a high school English teacher for 14 years, from 2009-2023. In 2021 I asked all 150ish of my students to respond to this writing prompt: "Evaluate your relationship with your phone."
I gave this assignment in 2022 as well. In two years, of the 200+ essay responses I read, not one was able to describe a remotely healthy relationship between a kid and his/her phone. I found that my students were thankful to have the space to discuss what has happened to them. This gave me the sense that others (including me, prior to 2021) were actually denying them this space.
There's something very dark and reality-denying about an entire culture that won't allow its children to say that the thing that is obviously hurting them is hurting them and has them feeling trapped. As I've come to realize that Gen Zers don't even really enjoy the thing they do all day every day it's made me so disappointed in my generation, in all of us adults. Millennials. As a generation we've been so sure that "everything will work out fine" because it did for us but these new kids don't want to hear that. They want and need SOLUTIONS.
We won't even ask them how they're REALLY doing so how could we begin to solve this problem for them?
I quit teaching because of phones in my school. I'm a nobody, I was just one teacher. I feel deep in my heart though that if every secondary English teacher in America gave that prompt - Evaluate your relationship with your phone - most of them would be blown away by the results. If my students were an indicator - and they are - then our teenagers are hurting deeply and nearly every one of them acknowledges being caught up in a "vicious cycle" through their phone. My female students' essays broke my heart and made me question everything.
I have two young daughters and I see that the work starts now. Last week I took their tablet away for good on similar logic to Rikki's - "No one ever regretted not giving a smartphone to a 13 year old." There is no possible way my wife and I could end up regretting taking our kids' tablet away. It can only hurt our family. This kind of logic can be applied to nearly every aspect of the phone/device economy we've trapped ourselves within.
Thankful for you, Rikki. We need STUDENT VOICES in this fight and the great majority of teachers are far more concerned with hot-button social issues than with the injustice which appears to be affecting every teenager for every minute of every day.
Millennial here, born in ‘89.
Whenever addictive and destructive neuro-chemical pathways are introduced to a society it takes generations for said society to learn how to adapt to these temptations.
China has learned the hard lesson of opiates at least twice, and I think that has some influence on their cultural (in)tolerance of those substances.
With the invention of distillation in the 18th century, 19th century America was drowning in hard liquor, 9 gallons per person annually of 80 proof. It took a century and the temperance movement (largely driven by women sick of their deadbeat husbands) to help us regulate to a point, but alcohol is still many’s greatest demon.
The same process must happen with screens. I’m pretty sure it won’t just be with screens though. All invasive technology will have to be rejected (on a personal and moral basis just like other substances which activate dopamine artificially). We must see that screens (and their connection to the internet) are like cigarettes for our soul, rotting us from the inside, making us less capable of interacting with the real world.
Until we recognize the destructive power of screens in our pockets connected to a corporate system designed to make us feel anxious, sick, unwell, self-conscious and afraid, so that we will buy more stuff to cover up the holes, we will be slaves to our addiction, just like every other addict.
This addiction hides in plain sight, sitting in front of all of our faces for far too long everyday.
Turn it off, walk outside, be with a friend. Sit in silence.
Elder Zoomer, born '98.
I would refine the recommendation to delay in two ways. First, kids, even 10 and 11 year olds, are smart and can often understand a lot. Explain to them the reasoning behind preventing phones and social media, that it cause anxiety and depression and that you don't want that for them. Show them the data. Even if they don't accept it in the moment, they know you have a reason and can start fitting the issues they see with their peers into the narrative you just explained to them.
Second, it's not enough to do merely remove the bad thing in a society that has largely removed the good things that used to be there in its place. Parents that want their children to play and do things other than be on a phone need to provide opportunities for their kids to do that. Unsupervised play is great and important, but if you live in a suburb with no other kids within safe walking distance, what is your kid supposed to do? If the parents are always on a laptop or watching TV at home, how is the kid supposed to learn to do things other than that?
Great perspective, thank you!
My dissenting opinion regarding this:
“ My suggestion: delay. Wait until high school to give them a phone. (As Jon recommends, you can give them a flip phone before that.) Wait even longer to let them have an Instagram or TikTok account. The resentment is temporary. They’ll thank you later.”
1. Don’t delay, just say no! You don’t need a smartphone in high school, either, dumb phones are just fine
2. Regarding high school itself, why would you want to send your kid to be surrounded by these awful, screen-addicted, depressed teens you so aptly describe? Get em out of there! Find alternative schools, homeschool groups, anything with other like minded families who recognize the dangers of screens and the importance of real life, nature, etc.
One good lead to start the unmachining:
But there are many others! Don’t give up hope : )
I wonder what percentage of us readers and commenters are doing so on phones. It is a difficult problem to say to young people, "Do as we say, not as we do."
I really wish these screen time debates would differentiate between consumption and creation.
Some of my best memories and achievements in life were yes, interacting with a screen with mouse, keyboard, and/or a headset.
I have made and maintained friendships through screens that would have been logistically impossible otherwise.
I've made a lucrative career; which supports my daughter and dog; interacting with screens.
We don't need any more surface-level demonization of technology. We need better alternatives than just moronic calls to "go outside" which do nothing other than make the parent feel morally superior.
Yes, get your kids to go outside, but also give them a keyboard and mouse/trackpad so they can do something with a screen other than mindlessly consume.
Perhaps it is too late for the Zoomers but for the Polars, stop being a friend, be a parent who is unafraid to say-and to mean-NO!
I strongly relate. Born in ‘96. Many of my peers also had scars on their wrists and even deeper ones on their minds. I will be delaying almost all screens with my children. I could have done with a few less in my middle school years but generous family members and parents unaware of the effects of endless screen time enacted little to no boundaries.
Great piece! It was a honor to get to write a book with Rikki and with Haidt. Nice to see both of my co-authors in the same post!
“All the things that have traditionally made life worth living — love, community, country, faith, work, and family — have been “debunked.” “ Dissenting opinion here. They weren’t debunked, they collapsed because they were leached of meaning. I remember the same signs of dysfunction from the sixties--the lack of connection, the absence of purpose. That was why so many of us travelled to exotic destinations. It was a vision quest--we were looking for some kind of epiphany that would tell us what we were supposed to do with our lives. So you describe the problem quite well, but the lack of historical context leads you to construct a straw man labelled ‘smart phones,’ when in fact It’s the same phenomen that drove me and my peers in 1970, only now there is a whole industry that sees it as a growth opportunity. Watch any newsfeed or streaming service for a day, paying attention ONLY to the advertising, because that’s the money shot. What are they selling? Hedonistic pleasure, material accumulation, status, attention. What we are seeing is the terminal stage of decades of hyper-individualism. Smart phones are an indicator, not a cause.
I don’t think screen time is what we should focus on - getting us in gen z to use our phones less is an uphill struggle.
What’s more interesting is this: why are some of gen z able to use the internet to improve their lives: to learn new skills better and faster, or to motivate themselves for a healthy lifestyle, while most use it as an unhealthy coping mechanism, and would be better off without it entirely?
Of course, everyone does a bit of both. But far more important is how much of each. If internet use is unavoidable for gen z, then we should be taught to use it well - how to make the most of the benefits, while avoiding the downsides.
If, as a parent, you’re young enough to use social media at least a bit, then start by asking yourself, ‘What do I want my kids learning about - what content do I want my kid watching? Who do I want them following?’ Then, just start watching it together. Set a good example of what the internet should be used for.
Holding out, then giving them their first phone in high school is like chucking them in the deep end for their first time at the pool.
Yes, they’re a bit older and more mature than they were. But they still don’t know how to swim.
As an educator, I would love to hear from Millennials and Gen Z about the impact of open online gradebooks. It's a technology that proliferated alongside smartphones, and I have seen its negative effects on student mental health for various reasons, including how it has affected their relationships to parents, teachers, peers, and schools.
My kids are in this age bracket but they weren’t allowed phones until Grade 10. Even still not all is well. There’s no doubt screens are toxic but it’s not that simple to suggest this is why so many kids are struggling. They really all need to break loose and find their own path, struggle lots to find their self worth, and find activities in their community where they are able to help others. There’s lots to say here, it can’t all be chalked up to Tik Tok.
PROFOUNDLY important insights, & exceptionally well written. Thanks!! Should we start with “Why?” Why the emptiness? Why the need for hope for a healthy soul (read Viktor Frankl)? Why do we only pay for evolution to be taught in our public schools (despite no eyewitnesses existing @ origin so it’s a faith-based discussion grounded on evidence) that necessarily results in a nihilistic, anarchical mindset/reality? Why can hope exist when we’re merely random beings heading to oblivion? Why isn’t despair reasonable? Why are we quick to kick God to the curb in the name of enlightenment despite being severely finite humans & the existence of empirical evidence for God from Jewish & Christian histories? Why aren’t we helping our kids know that their true identity is being uniquely & gloriously made in God’s image & loved by God? Why wouldn’t that reality fill them with hope & purpose? Why are we letting them drown in enlightenment’s nihilism where distractions from a phone simply numbs the soul’s pain without giving them a compelling alternative? Why?
Screens are incredibly toxic. I’m a late Gen X with kids in grade school and middle school and i find myself constantly shooing them away from screens. My middle schooler got a watch to communicate with friends, no phone, definitely no social media. And still it’s hard to get him to cultivate friendships.
I am a '97 baby.
I found Jon and Greg's arguments about smartphones and safetyism in Coddling of the American Mind compelling. They presented an abundance of data to support their arguments, predicted and addressed some counterarguments, and Greg's experience with cognitive distortions and college students demonstrated both how Zoomers' mental health problems were changing institutions as they moved up in life and how serious the consequences of their problems could be. As an elder Zoomer, I aged with technology and safety culture almost exactly along timeline that Jon and Greg described.
That is why I think the advice Rikki offers, is probably necessary but definitely not sufficient. I think that I stumbled into having about the best relationship with technology that someone my age could have. My parents did not get me a smartphone until I was 15 for financial reasons and my high school required all students to turn off their phones and store them in their lockers during the day, not for mental health reasons, but because of how disruptive phones are to learning. They strictly enforced this rule. Every student caught violating the rule was sentenced to five detentions and their phone was confiscated until they attended the first detention. Despite my parents and school predicting and implementing Rikki's advice, I still relate to the cultural and institutional malaise she describes. I can think of two reasons for this.
First, smartphones are not necessary for the "debunking" of meaningful institutions that Rikki describes. Robert Putnam detailed the decline in community in Bowling Alone, released 7 years before anyone had an iPhone. Declining religiosity likewise predates the rewiring of the American brain. Disillusionment with America as a country and the American government is more related to the 2008 Financial Crisis, quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the increasing popularity of the historical views of radicals and populists. The internet and smartphones probably exacerbated some of this, but other factors hold the majority of the blame. With delayed access to a smartphone, your child might not grow up to be a "faithless digital vagabond", merely a faithless vagabond with a modestly healthier relationship with technology.
Second, even if you never own a smartphone, you are still going to live in a world where your peers do own smartphones and a society molded my those peers. Even if you want to live in a close-knit community, find a monogamous partner, and participate in a serious political culture, you cannot do that when all of your peers are distracted by the ultimately empty plugs that Rikki describes. You will need a critical mass of peers with common values to cure our generation's malaise.
I felt slightly out of place at college. I did not think this at the time, but part of the reason may have been that my peers spent their high school years being rewired while I was relatively shielded from it. It's difficult to tell how much of this is related directly to having restricted access to smartphones as a teenager versus typical social dynamics in college versus things particular to me, but I felt pretty lonely in college and found the social scene considerably more challenging than the academics. When I'm in the mood to dramatically overstate things, I see college as the time where my life started to go downhill. (A more realistic analysis would say that I did not gain nearly as much as I could have from college, especially considering how many older people say networks and connections are the most valuable thing they got from college.) I think that so long as the rewiring of the American brain continues, some portion of those shielded from it during their childhood and teenage years are going to experience something similar when they enter the real world, a world of maladjusted digital vagabonds.