What do we really know about teens?

The iPhone has turned ten. There’s a useful summation of the so called iGen by Professor of Psychology, San Diego State University on the Conversation this week which is also supporting the release of her book (on the too read list).

This is the new normal: Instead of calling someone, you text them. Instead of getting together for dinner with friends to tell them about your recent vacation, you post the pictures to Facebook. It’s convenient, but it cuts out some of the face-to-face interactions that, as social animals, we crave. – Twenge, 2017

Essentially, Twenge reviews the issues and overlap with generational labels and why the current generation of teenagers behave very differently to previous generations. She argues that the common 1:1 ratio of teen to phone has resulted in isolation, distraction and a broad dissatisfaction with non-preferred interactions with others. It’s this which I’ll pick up – is iGen making deliberate choices about avoiding/shutting down non-preferred interactions with teachers (who insist they need an education) for a world teens see as irrelevant?

Research continues to show that screen time needs regulation and that parental practices towards that goal are almost unknown. The limited research that has looked at screen time, is more often from psychology than education or media. It broadly aligns screen addiction with television addiction and gambling, which has been the ‘media effects’ line run about young people at peril for over thirty years.

The impact for teachers is similarly unknown. While teachers might learn how to use technology in pursuit of their goals – which are aligned to the modernist roots of mass education, most teachers I speak to are increasingly finding iGen difficult to engage when they shut-down. iGen is therefore physically familiar, and skilled at swiping at tapping, but involved in a cultural reproduction which alienates them from adults – be they parents or teachers. Schools have had various success in ‘banning phones’ or attempting to get students to use them in ‘school mode’ with a goal of annexing this culture. Few have policies towards ‘screen time’ in terms of digital nutrition, nor do they account for individual usage patterns of children – from low users to habitual. Twenge hints in her article at the ‘mood’ of teens who have grown up with phones, using a range of studies, mostly from the USA.

Some Australian teens do appear struggle to socialise and recognise the role of teachers in their daily lives. While the mantra of ‘pedagogy over technology’ is a well-worn phrase, the underpinning cultural reproduction of teens themselves cannot be isolated or ignored. In addition, the social distance between iGen and thier parents – which some researchers call ‘tethering’ – is more elastic than ever. The teen who doesn’t make much effort in school will not suddenly become more attentive if they are given rich-media courses over listening to their teacher. If they don’t like the class, they are quick to reject their teachers attempts to engage them. Dealing with iGen is therefore different, and further points to how difficult (silly) the idea of preparing kids for jobs of the future, when teachers and parents are struggling to understand the iGen of today.

This is a wicked problem that cannot be solved with behaviorist rules, or the liberalism and democracy of self-determination. These are decaying ‘adult’ ideas. The digital culture iGen CREATES has it’s own rules and motivations which we know almost nothing about. The teen who doesn’t make much effort in school will not suddenly become more attentive if they are given rich-media courses over listening to their teacher – so robot-teacher is a myth, the digital native is a myth and we keep trying to find the tech-solution to what are actually social problems. If they don’t like the class, they are quick to reject their teachers’ attempts to engage them. Thier super connected parents are just as quick to hear about how their over-reaching teacher is giving them a hard time – aka, please learn, we are trying to help you – and yet at home, teens vanish into their social media worlds behind closed bedroom doors. Dealing with iGen is therefore different, and further points to how difficult (silly) the idea of preparing kids for jobs of the future, when teachers and parents are struggling to understand the iGen of today.

If iGen doesn’t like today’s class, they are quick to reject teacher attempts to engage them – enabled by an experienced digital culture of doing your own thing, when not interesting in what’s happening in immediate reality. This ‘escape’ is to a world of conumerism and marketing which also targets teens with messages about identity and self-worth. Teens don’t see any problem with this remediation of lived experience – a culture enabled by a decade of 1:1 digital access. It is no wonder parents and teacher often feel drained. Dealing with iGen is different and creates problems which I think we’re struggling to understand – after a decade of perpetual disruption and reshaping of culture. Twenge leads me to think how difficult (silly) the idea of preparing kids for jobs of the future is (the current mantra of educelebs) when teachers and parents are struggling to understand how to connect iGen to other generations.

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