By Dick Koehneke
Some people call today’s young people “the younger generation.” A researcher, wife, mother of three daughters (ages 6, 9, and 12), professor and author named Jean Twenge (she holds a Ph.D. in psychology ) has another name for the younger generation: iGen. It stands for “Internet Generation” and it refers to people born beginning in 1995, the year the Internet was born. Her special focus is on people currently in middle school and high school, as well as college age, so there’s some overlap with the youngest part of the Millennial generation.
Her new book, published in 2017 by Simon & Schuster, is titled iGen. It’s important reading for anyone who wants to understand “the younger generation.” Her findings are based on four major research studies that have been going on for decades. All told, they have surveyed 11 million people. She writes, “By comparing one generation to another at the same age, we can observe the views of young people about themselves, rather than relying on older people’s reflections of a time gone by. We can see differences that are due to cultural changes and not to age. These surveys show that young people now are quite different from young people in previous decades.” The year 2011 is the year when “everything started to change in the survey data.” She points out that 2011 was the year when smartphones began to come into widespread use.
Her basic thesis is that this generation has grown up with the Internet, social media, and smartphones. As Dr. Twenge puts it, “This generation is the ideal place to look for trends that will shape our culture in the years to come, as its members are very young but still old enough to express their views and report on their experiences.” She writes, “They socialize in completely new ways, reject once sacred social taboos, and want different things from their lives and careers. They are obsessed with safety and fearful of their economic futures. They have no patience for inequality based on gender, race, or sexual orientation. They are at the forefront of the worst mental health crisis in decades, with rates of teen depression and suicide skyrocketing since 2011.”
She says that this generation is “addicted to their phones, and they know it. It’s clear that most teens (and adults) would be better off if they spent less time with their screens.” She quotes one teenage girl speaking to the author of another book: “Social media is destroying our lives, but [we don’t go off it] because then we would have no life.”
If that’s not a working definition of addiction, I don’t know what is.
There are many valuable insights and excellent suggestions in her book. Here’s one: Put off giving your child a cell phone for as long as possible. When you do get one for your child in middle school at the earliest, make it an old school flip phone, not a smartphone.
One of her main points is that today’s young people are more connected than ever electronically, but they are isolated and lonely when it comes to meaningful face to face communication. It strikes me that now, more than ever, there may be a need and an opportunity for Christians to teach, practice and live the Incarnation: “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.” (John 1:14) God wasn’t – and isn’t – content with communicating with disembodied words. God uses flesh and blood people to reach people “in the flesh” with His truth and love. “Long ago, in many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son.” (Hebrews 1:1-2)
How can we reach out to these precious young people, not only by using social media in creative and constructive ways, but also by going out of our way, moving out of our comfort zones, to see them and hear them and touch them? That’s what God did for us in the person of His Son. And that’s what God wants to do through us in the world today. As Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:21) I can’t recall who said it, but it goes something like this: “Jesus is God with skin on, and we are Jesus with skin on.”
Dr. Twenge ends her book this way: “If they [the iGen’ers] can shake themselves free of the constant clutch of their phones and shrug off the heavy cloak of their fear, they can still fly. And the rest of us will be there, cheering them on.”
God loves the iGen’ers! We can help them shake free of their phones and shrug off their fears as we share Jesus with them and show Jesus to them. Doing so will make a Christ-like difference in their lives, in the world they will lead and shape, and in the world to come.