The youngest members of Gen Z are still only 10 years old — but a preeminent generational expert is already using them as a cautionary tale.
“Happiness started to decline, life satisfaction declined, expectations went down,” Dr. Jean Twenge told The Post of Gen Z. “Depression went up, and this pessimism really took root among young people.
“My hope is we can do something so that the teen mental health crisis doesn’t affect Polars in the same way it has affected Gen Z.”
“Polars” is the name that the San Diego State University psychology professor has given to Gen Alpha, the kids born after 2012; it’s a reference to two major issues they will face: political polarization and the melting polar ice caps of climate change.
As bleak as that future sounds, there’s an equally threatening one looming.
Keeping kids safe will require society to keep up with and regulate rapidly changing technologies, Twenge says in her book, “Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers and Silents — and What They Mean for America’s Future,” out April 28.
Contrary to the popular theory that so-called “generation defining events” — the Challenger disaster for Gen X, 9/11 for Millennials, and the pandemic for Gen Z, etc.— delineate different age groups, Twenge argues in her book that it’s actually technology changes that define generations.
“Major events are not the primary driver of generational differences,” she told The Post. “It’s technology that would make our lives unrecognizable to someone 50 years ago or 200 years ago — and not just technology but also its downstream effects on culture, on attitudes, on behavior, on development.”
Dr. Twenge’s book chronicles the technological innovations that define America’s six living generations. “Technological change isn’t just about stuff; it’s about how we live, which influences how we think, feel, and behave,” she writes.
Think: washing machines (the Silent Generation), television and air conditioning (Boomers), computer technology and microwaves (Gen X), internet news and Facebook (Millennials) and, yes, TikTok (Gen Z).
As a self-described “data person,” Twenge also digs deep into statistics to catch up with each generation to see how they’re doing today.
“The 2020s are a dynamic decade for the six living American generations,” Twenge writes. “Silents are enjoying their retirement again after locking down during the pandemic. Boomers, who dominated the culture for decades, are still retiring at a rapid clip. Gen Xers are moving into top leadership positions, sometimes reluctantly.
“Millennials are entering the prime of their life and are seeking more responsibility. Gen Zers are finding their voice and understanding their influence. Polars are overcoming getting their start during a global pandemic, with the potential for strength and resilience born of adversity.”
But, as she warns in her book: “Regulating social media … will be one of the most important tasks of the 2020s.”
The hyper-connectivity of social media proved to be an unmitigated social experiment for Generation Z — those born between 1995 and 2012.
As smart phones and platforms like Instagram exploded onto the scene around 2012, rates of depression and anxiety subsequently skyrocketed among young people.
Twenge points out that youth depression has doubled since 2011, arguing that Gen Z’s upbringing as social media guinea pigs has left them more pessimistic than any generation before.
“I think one of the biggest [differences between Millennials and Gen Z] is a shift from optimism to pessimism,” she said. “Happiness started decline, life satisfaction declined, expectations went down.”
After deep diving into Gen Z for her 2018 book, “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood,” Twenge is now looking to the next generation and hoping lessons will be learned.
From day one, Polars — who are sometimes dubbed the iPad generation — have been glued to screens, and they’re plugging into social media earlier than ever.
Twenge points out that seven in 10 fifth and sixth graders say they’re on social media. And of the kids whose parents ban it, four in 10 admit they’re still using the platforms.
Now that it’s known what kind of devastation hyper-connectivity can reap on young minds, Twenge is hoping that society can address the problem of social media so Gen Z’s guinea-pig trials not in vain.
“I think we have to take a really hard look at how our kids are growing up and try to regulate social media to give parents the resources that they need so their kids aren’t on screens as much,” she said.
She hopes more parents can band together to prevent kids from going on social media too early. When entire friend groups aren’t allowed on, she says it prevents FOMO (fear of missing out): “Social media is social. A lot of kids don’t want to log off because otherwise they’ll feel left out. We need these group level solutions.”
But she also thinks the government has a role here, too. Although most social media networks require users to be of a certain age (usually 13), children can — and do — easily circumvent the rule by lying about their birth date.
In March, TikTok announced that teens would be limited to one hour per day on the platform. After 60 minutes, they have to input a passcode to continue scrolling further.
This, according to Twenge, falls short of the types of solutions we need.
“The problem is it’s not really a time limit — it’s just a suggestion,” she said. “Giving teens a pause while using the app is a step in the right direction, but it’s not nearly enough.”
Twenge says creating an enforceable requirement would be a step in the right direction, and she’s holding out hope that lawmakers are making headway: “I am particularly encouraged by the attention from policymakers because I think the long term solution is regulation. It’s very hard for individual youth and individual parents to try to fight against excessive social media use.”
As technology continues to develop at warp-speed, Polars will also have to wrestle with a whole host of new realities, too.
The recent popularization of AI programs like ChatGPT will certainly be something to watch. Already, 89% of college students admit to using AI to help with homework — and there’s no way yet to know how these unprecedented tools will shape the way Polars navigate the world.
But AI is only the tip of the iceberg for Polars, the youngest of which won’t be born until 2029.
As technological gaps widen, intergenerational conversation will likely become harder than ever, Twenge said. And while that might be a source of tension, she hopes her book will help foster some more cross-group empathy.
“My primary goal is giving people the information to take someone else’s perspective and to realize how different it was to grow up in a different time,” she said. “The first step is always empathy — just realizing that your kids or your grandkids grew up in a completely different world from the one that you were raised in. It doesn’t make it right or wrong or good or bad. It’s just different.”
The Open Magazine of India by Artmotion Network (https://magazine.armotion.com/)