It’s too late for Generation Z, so we must save Generation Alpha from digital peril

The youngest members of Generation Z are still just 10 years old, but a leading generational expert is already using them as a warning.

“Happiness started to go down, life satisfaction went down, expectations went down,” Dr. Jean Twenge told The Post of Gen Z. “Depression increased, and this pessimism really took hold among young people.

“My hope is that we can do something so that the adolescent mental health crisis doesn’t affect the Polars in the same way that it affected Generation Z.”

“Polars” is the name that the San Diego State University psychology professor has given to the Alpha Generation, the children born after 2012; is a reference to two main problems they will face: political polarization and the melting of the ice caps from climate change.

As bleak as that future sounds, there’s an equally threatening one looming.

Keeping children safe will require society to keep up with and regulate rapidly changing technologies, Twenge says in her book, “Generations: The Real Differences Between Generation Z, Millennials, Generation X, Boomers, and Silent , and what they mean for America’s future.” It comes out on April 28.

Contrary to 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. — delineating different age groups, Twenge argues in her book that it is actually technological change that defines generations.

“Big events are not the main driver of generational gaps,” he told The Post. “It’s the technology that would make our lives unrecognizable to someone 50 or 200 years ago, and not just the technology, but its subsequent effects on culture, attitudes, behavior and development.”

Dr. Twenge’s book recounts the technological innovations that define America’s six generations alive. “Technological change is not just about things; it is about how we live, which influences how we think, feel and behave,” he 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 into the statistics to catch up with each generation and see how they’re doing today.

Two young girls scrolling through their phones
The youngest members of Generation Z are still just 10 years old, but they’ve been glued to screens for most of their lives.

“The 2020s are a dynamic decade for all six living American generations,” Twenge writes. “The silent ones enjoy their retirement again after the confinement during the pandemic. Boomers, who dominated the culture for decades, are still retiring at a fast pace. Members of Generation X are moving into the most important leadership positions, sometimes reluctantly.

“Millennials are entering the prime of their lives and looking for more responsibility. Gen Zers are finding their voice and understanding their influence. Polars are getting over their beginnings during a global pandemic, with the potential for strength and resilience born of adversity.”

But, as he warns in his book: “Regulating social media…will be one of the most important tasks of the 2020s.”

The hyper-connectivity of social networks turned out to be an absolute social experiment for Generation Z, those born between 1995 and 2012.

Jean Twenge book cover for "Generations: The real differences between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents, and what they mean for America's future."
Twenge’s book comes out April 28.

As smartphones and platforms like Instagram burst 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 previous generation.

I think one of the biggest [differences between Millennials and Gen Z] it is a shift from optimism to pessimism,” he said. “Happiness started to go down, life satisfaction went down, expectations went down.”

After delving into Generation Z for her 2018 book, “iGen: Why Today’s Superconnected Kids Grow Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy, and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood,” Twenge now looks to the next generation and hopes lessons will be learned.

Sometimes called the iPad generation, the Polar have been glued to screens and connecting to social media faster than ever since day one.

Twenge points out that seven out of 10 fifth and sixth graders say they are on social media. And of the kids whose parents forbid it, four in 10 admit they still use the platforms.

Older woman and girl
According to Twenge, it is not formative events but technological innovations that define generations.

Now that it’s known what kind of devastation hyper-connectivity can wreak on young minds, Twenge hopes society can address the social media problem so that Gen Z’s guinea pig tests don’t go to waste.

“I think we have to take a very careful look at how our kids grow up and try to regulate social media to give parents the resources they need so their kids aren’t on screens as much,” she said.

She hopes more parents can join in to prevent kids from using social media too soon. When entire friend groups aren’t allowed, she says she avoids FOMO (fear of missing out): “Social media is social. Many children don’t want to disconnect because otherwise they will feel left out. We need these solutions at the group level.”

But he also believes that the government has a role here as well. Although most social networks require users to be a certain age (usually 13), children can and do easily circumvent the rule by lying about their date of birth.

TikTok CEO testifying at congress
Recent testimony from TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew on Capitol Hill has failed to assuage the concerns of many who fear TikTok will have a detrimental impact on America’s youth.
AFP via Getty Images

In March, TikTok announced that teens would be limited to one hour per day on the platform. After 60 minutes, they must enter an access code to continue scrolling.

This, according to Twenge, falls short of the kinds of solutions we need.

“The problem is that it’s not really a time limit, it’s just a suggestion,” he said. “Giving teens a break while using the app is a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough.”

Twenge says that creating an enforceable requirement would be a step in the right direction, and she’s hopeful that lawmakers are moving forward: “I’m especially encouraged by the attention from lawmakers because I think the long-term solution is regulation. It is very difficult for individual young people and individual parents to try to fight the excessive use of social networks.

Girl using social networks on the phone
The Alpha Generation will likely see unimaginable technological innovation in their lifetime.

As technology continues to develop at a rapid pace, the Polars will also have to deal with a host of new realities.

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 still no telling how these unprecedented tools will shape the way Polar navigates the world.

But AI is just the tip of the iceberg for Polars, the youngest of which won’t be born until 2029.

As technology gaps widen, the intergenerational conversation is likely to become more difficult than ever, Twenge said. And while that could be a source of tension, she hopes her book will help foster more empathy between groups.

“My main goal is to give people the information to take another person’s perspective and realize how different it was to grow up in a different time,” he said. “The first step is always empathy: just realizing that your children or your grandchildren grew up in a completely different world than the one in which you were raised. It doesn’t make it right or wrong, good or bad. It’s just different.”

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