A lonely, dislocated generation?

The real physical world seems to have largely disappeared and visual reality seems to have taken over almost completely. Children assess their relationship with the outside world not through social contact but through ‘likes’ and similar superficial nods from social media like Facebook, Smartchat, Instagram. Without these gadgets, they seem to be completely lost.

Parents worry about the health of children who have now practically given up playing with other children and prefer to sit in a corner and communicate only with and through their smart phones.

A recent report by Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me and iGen, highlights some of the dramatic changes that have taken place in the past decade.

The iPhone was introduced in 2007 and the iPad in 2010.  A survey in the US this year showed that three-quarters of American teens owned an iPhone, and while no data is readily available for teenagers in Malta, there is no reason to believe that the prevalence of iPhone use is significantly different.

The unfortunate fact is that excessive use of electronic gadgets is not without side effects.  It is usual for teenagers to spend hours using their gadgets every day.  Twenge comments: “Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviours and emotional states.”

Undesirable side effects include not only reduced retention span, or cyberbullying, but may lead to more seriouscomplications, including depression and even suicide.

Twenge says that currently, teens seem to be “on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones”.

It is curious to note that while these days one counts the number of ‘friends’ on social media in their hundreds, one is more and more likely to feel lonely and left out.

Another undesirable side effect is the interruption of normal daily life and particularly reduction in the sleep pattern.

Many teens now use electronic gadgets for seven or more hours a day – many sleep with their mobile under their pillow to be consulted last thing at night and first thing in the morning. This could lead to a serious reduction in ability to deal with normal schooling.

Moreover, sleep deprivation has been shown to lead to reduced capacity for thinking and reasoning, as well as to physical effects, including weight gain and an increase in blood pressure. Moreover, habits gained in childhood have an increased likelihood of being perpetrated into adulthood.

To be sure, there have been some beneficial effects resulting from the use of smart phones and other digital equipment. Compared to groups of teenagers over the past decade, it appears from the survey referred to above, that these days teenagers are less likely to smoke, less interested in obtaining a driver’s car licence resulting in a reduction in the incidence of traffic accidents, less likely to leave the family home early, less likely to indulge in early sexual activity, with a consequent reduction of teenage pregnancy.

It is my view that this report should be required reading for anyone, particularly parents and educators in order to counterbalance the current view that computers are the panacea for educational reform.

It has become very difficult if not totally impossible to control the abuse of digital equipment, particularly by the younger generation.

[First published on timesofmalta.com on 23 Sep 2017]

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