The Challenges and Opportunities Facing a Generation of Digital Natives
By Adam Caress
The current generation of students on college campuses across America—often referred to as “Generation Z,” the “iGeneration,” or simply “iGen”—is a generation distinct from its “millennial” predecessors, who are now in their 20s and 30s. While the generational delineation is still being hammered out (and will be for years to come), the iGeneration refers to those born between roughly 1996 and 2012.
The distinction between iGens and their predecessors is most often talked about in terms of their relation to digital technology. Where most millennials can recall a time before the ubiquity of iPhones, social media, and—for the eldest among them—the internet itself, the iGeneration is made up of “digital natives” for whom a life without the ever-present connectedness of digital devices can be difficult to imagine. This is a profound generational shift.
In his book The Gutenberg Elegies, literary critic Sven Birkerts captures the sweeping nature of this shift when he describes how most iGens “will never in their lives have the experience that was, until our time, the norm—who will never stand in isolation among trees and stones, out of shouting distance of any other person, with no communication implement, forced to confront the slow, grainy momentum of time passing. The rules that have [always] ruled individuals… are suddenly, with a finger-snap, largely irrelevant. This is more astonishing than we generally admit.”
Whether one sees this change as the welcome progression of technological advancement or as further evidence of Western culture’s ruination—and Birkerts certainly falls into the latter camp—it is impossible to deny the radical shift that has taken place in recent years, one that has implications across the cultural spectrum, including in higher education.
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The amount of time Americans spend on smartphones doubled between 2013 and 2016 to over five hours per day. Teens now spend, on average, roughly nine hours a day using screen-based media, most of that time on mobile devices. This means that the members of the iGeneration spend more time on their smartphones—a device that was introduced to humanity just 10 years ago—than they do in school, with their families and friends, or doing any other waking activity. Such accelerated change is bound to have widespread effects. The question is: what are they?
The initial studies are not encouraging. Jean M. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University who has published multiple journal articles and a book on the iGeneration, says the answer is simple: “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 non-screen activities are more likely to be happy. There’s not a single exception.” In a 2017 article for The Atlantic titled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” Twenge ties alarmingly high rates of depression and anxiety among iGens to smartphone use, particularly social media.
“All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all non-screen activities are linked to more happiness,” she writes. “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.”
While the studies Twenge cites are persuasive, she tends to view the situation as black-and-white cause-and-effect between digital media and negative outcomes. Others see the situation as more complex. In his new book Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression–and the Unexpected Solutions, journalist and cultural critic Johann Hari argues that increased rates of depression and anxiety are due to the broader problem of growing disconnection from other people—a problem to which digital media is but one of many contributors. Citing decades-long declines in religious affiliation, spiraling membership in local community organizations, and surveys pointing to less and less “meaningful” work, he says, “The internet arrived at the very moment when all the wider forces of disconnection were reaching a crescendo.” To Hari, digital media offered a false solution to the pre-existing problem of disconnectedness, which he cites as the leading cause of depression. Digital media has exacerbated the problem; it is not the cause of the problem itself.
To author and pastor Skye Jethani, the problem of anxiety and depression among iGens is related to the stressfulness of having to navigate a less stable society, which he explains in terms of “foreground decisions” and “background decisions.”
“Background decisions are decisions that the society makes for the individual, and the individual never really has to think about,” Jethani says. “And foreground decisions are decisions that the individual consciously makes for himself or herself. The argument is essentially that the more background decisions a society makes, the more stable it is, because there are more shared, assumed norms. And the more foreground decisions in a society, the more destabilizing and anxiety-producing it is. I think the iGeneration—they don’t know it because they don’t have anything to compare it to—but they’re growing up with levels of anxiety that are completely unfamiliar to those who are older, because so many more decisions are thrust on them at a younger and younger age about their own identities, about society, about culture and values that just didn’t exist before. So the level of anxiety is enormous. Then you add into that the digital realities of constant connectivity, and it’s not a surprise, unfortunately, that we see escalating rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide among young adults.”
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Most behavioral studies continue to rely on survey data about what people do and how they feel, connecting the appropriate dots between the two. But in recent years, advances in brain science have allowed researchers to observe the interactions between the brain and technology—both in real time and over longer periods. In his groundbreaking book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, technology writer Nicholas Carr gathered the leading research in the field, shedding crucial light on the social and emotional phenomena being observed in recent studies.
As Carr documents, recent studies have shown that the structure of the human brain is far more malleable—or, as researchers would say, it possesses more plasticity—than was previously believed. The brain is constantly creating new neural pathways in order to more efficiently accommodate new experiences and functions. And according to the latest research, this plasticity isn’t limited to childhood; it continues throughout our adult lives. “Through what we do and how we do it—moment by moment, day by day, consciously or unconsciously—we alter the chemical flows in our synapses and change our brains,” Carr explains. “And when we hand down our habits of thought to our children, through the examples we set, the schooling we provide, and the media we use, we hand down as well the modifications in the structure of our brains.”
But the brain doesn’t just create new neural pathways to accommodate new behaviors; it also allows unused pathways to atrophy. “The vital paths in our brains become… the paths of least resistance,” explains Carr. “They are the paths that most of us will take most of the time, and the farther we proceed down them, the more difficult it becomes to turn back.” In this context, the rapid proliferation of digital media use takes on a new significance, explaining the addictive nature of smartphones. As our brains have created and used the neural pathways necessary to surf the internet, other pathways related to deep reading and in-person interactions have atrophied, making it more difficult for our brains to engage in those kinds of activities—and easier to simply hop online. “It’s not just that we use the internet regularly, even obsessively,” says Carr. “It’s that the net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli—repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive—that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions.”
The reasons for our culture’s adoption of digital media are clear: speed, convenience, ease of use, and so on. But there are serious tradeoffs. “Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators, and web designers point to the exact same conclusion: when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning,” writes Carr. “The internet’s cacophony of stimuli short- circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively.”
And it is precisely this reality that has conjured the dire concerns of intellectuals like Sven Birkerts. “My core fear is that we are, as a culture, as a species, becoming shallower,” Birkerts writes in The Gutenberg Elegies, “that we have turned from depth—from the Judeo-Christian premise of unfathomable mystery—and are adapting ourselves to the ersatz security of vast lateral connectedness. That we are giving up on wisdom, the struggle for which has for millennia been central to the very idea of culture, and that we are pledging instead to a faith in the web. What is our idea, our ideal, of wisdom these days? Who represents it? Who even invokes it? … It would be wrong to lay all the blame at the feet of technology, but more wrong to ignore the great transformative impact of new technological systems—to act as if it’s all just business as usual.”
A cursory glance around the American cultural landscape would appear to confirm Birkerts’ fears. Huge dives in religious affiliation, the seeming loss of moral consensus, eroding norms of political discourse—all could be seen as symptoms of the problems Birkerts diagnoses. But embedded in Nicholas Carr’s reporting on brain technology is also a ray of hope. The brain plasticity that has led to our current predicament also means that our predicament is not the permanent state of things. Our atrophied neural pathways sit waiting, ready to be re-activated and re-energized. There is always before us a choice, the possibility of change. And this is particularly true for the young.
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The Montreat College campus is so nature- filled and picturesque that “digital media” is hardly the first thing one thinks of when setting foot on campus. The Montreat Cove looks much like it did when the college was founded over a century ago. And yet the iGeneration students on Montreat’s campus are facing the same challenges faced by students on college campuses all around the country. In talking with them, the number one challenge posed by digital media immersion becomes crystal clear: distraction.
“I hate this, but last night I was trying to do homework and I kept being distracted by Snapchatting,” says Montreat senior Jordan Devan. “I was just so distracted. For five minutes I would do my homework, and then I would just look at my phone. That constant turning on and turning off of my mind and focus—I could have gotten it done in 20 minutes, but it took an hour.”
It’s a common tale. “So today I was trying to do homework, but I also had a movie on, had some art going on another screen, and then I was also playing a game on the other screen,” says senior Josh Isiguzo. “The homework could have been done in one hour. It wasn’t a lot. But it took me five hours to complete because I was just doing everything at the same time.”
Distraction is also a challenge in the classroom itself. “The presence of phones in the classroom is a huge distraction,” says Montreat Business Professor Hub Powell. “25 years ago faculty believed that technology would strengthen student engagement due to increased access to information, but in fact, it is generally a distraction.”
“Smartphones in the class are a problem all the time, especially in the larger Gen Ed classes,” says Bible and Ministry Professor Don Shepson. “I start every class by saying, ‘Take your earbuds out and put your phones away.’ That’s my pre-class mantra. ‘I’m letting you know these are my expectations.’ I think maybe the only way I could successfully win that battle would be to have a basket outside the classroom door that says, ‘Put your phone in here.’ But this generation is so tied to the device. It’s such a personal thing. It would be like asking them to take off their shirt, or something silly like, ‘I’m sorry, but you can’t have your shoes in class.’ So I haven’t done that, but as faculty we’ve had conversations about it.”
The ongoing challenge has caused some faculty to go ahead and go fully tech-free in the classroom. “I’ve had a complete ban on technology like phones and laptops,” says History Professor Benjamin Brandenburg. “That’s a rapid shift in the past few years that is quickly becoming best practice. I fully expect students to use their phones for research and to use the knowledge available on the internet when they’re outside the classroom, but not in the classroom. I think that change has been accepted, and a lot of students are surprisingly at peace with a complete technology ban. Some students actually enjoy not being tempted to look at their phones.”
The students themselves affirm this approach. “There are studies that show it’s more effective to write your notes by hand because it reinforces the information,” says junior Abby Haas. “It’s also a distraction to have a phone or laptop. You can text, or if you have a Mac, you can do iMessaging. Students can have technology out and look like they’re being studious but also be checking social media and other things. Overall, I think laptops are great for homework in your room, but I think [physical] notebooks are better for the classroom.”
The challenge of distraction applies to students’ social lives, as well. “It’s harder to communicate these days,” says junior Madeline Sides. “When you’re at a table, everyone wants to pull out their phones because they’re afraid they’re going to miss something. I think people have lost their social skills.” Sophomore Joseph Akpome concurs, “When you are with your friends you may pull your phone out instead of talking to each other or doing something good. That’s a huge negative factor.”
Outdoor Education Professor Dottie Shuman has also seen changes in her students’ behavior. “When I first came here in the 90s, students would just hang out in my office to talk about anything,” she says. “I called it ‘plopping.’ I thrive talking to students in one-on-one situations. But now students hardly ever come by. I’m not sure if it’s because of technology, but it seems instead of asking questions in person, students look up answers or send me an email. They don’t make the effort to come by my office.”
Digital media offers many positives, too, especially for college students who have left behind family and friends to attend school. “It has made communicating with people not close to you much easier,” says senior Shelby Treat. “I can just pick up my phone and FaceTime my friend who lives in Canada and see her and talk to her, and that is such a blessing.” “I’m an international student,” says Isiguzo. “So it’s helped me keep up with my family. I can just call home or check social media; it helps me stay connected.”
Another positive for college students is the ease of online research. “You can look up [online databases] JSTOR or NCLive and there are so many wonderful resources there,” says Isiguzo. “Research is a huge positive,” agrees senior Rachel Swapp. “I can’t even imagine going back to having to look everything up by hand.”
Oddly enough, the students who talk the most about the negative effects of excessive digital media use also talk about their difficulty avoiding it. “It frustrates the heck out of me when I’m at a lunch table and everyone is on their phones,” says Swapp. “It’s a waste of time when people don’t engage with each other. It is addictive, though. If I see someone on their phone, it makes me want to look at mine, and I have to fight the feeling not to.”
“I feel like people were more connected pre-smartphones,” says Haas. “So I’ve taken steps to try and fight against societal norms, because I know I would spend way more time reading or doing productive things if I did not have a smartphone or digital media. But it’s hard when it’s just second nature to pull your phone out.”
The addictive nature of smartphone use doesn’t surprise Shepson. “The guys that create these different apps, especially on social media, their goal is to keep you on your app,” he says. “They’ve created apps thoughtfully so that they will be addictive. They build these things to keep you coming back.”
But Shepson also sees a unique opportunity teaching at a Christian liberal arts college, and he believes Montreat’s focus on intellectual inquiry, spiritual formation, and in-person communication is the perfect antidote to the challenges faced by the iGeneration. “I want to help my students to grow in wisdom. That takes time, and we have time here at Montreat for that conversation. We all have to learn to put down things that are distracting and that won’t help us grow in wisdom. I want my students to be people of godly wisdom, that they would know God, be faithful to him. And if we start there, I’m pretty sure they’ll get the other stuff right. That is my hope.” ■
Adam Caress is the director of communications for Montreat College.