An Interview with Jean Twenge about the iGen

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John Stewart

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To kick off OLC Accelerate Live!, I interviewed Prof. Jean Twenge a couple of weeks ago about her recent book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us. Prof. Twenge teaches in the Department of Psychology at San Diego State University and is going to be one of the keynote speakers at OLC Accelerate this November.

In iGen, Prof. Twenge dives into statistical, sociological, and psychological data about the generation of Americans that was born between 1995 and roughly 2014. While the description of a high school student focused on the screen in their hand is extremely familiar, the implications for social interaction, media consumption, and mental health were far profound than I had anticipated.

In our conversation, I encouraged Prof. Twenge to talk about her observation that members of the iGen are growing up slowly. She argues that because the average American family has less children than in prior generations, childhood is being prolonged and adolescence both delayed and shortened. Kids in the iGen work less, drink less, and have sex less than kids did in the prior, 20th-century generations. While Baby Boomers often fought for attention with many siblings, many kids now grow up as an only child or with a single sibling. Because of this parents pay more attention to and have closer relationships with their kids. This contributes to Prof. Twenge’s finding that the current generation is “less rebellious” and “unprepared for adulthood” as compared to Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millenials.

I was more surprised by the data showing that the iGen battles higher rates of mental health issues. Prof. Twenge argues that this is, at least in part, due to the insular nature of the iGen. On average they work less, are less involved in extracurriculars, and spend less time in study than prior generations. While they are socializing on their smart phones, it’s often from a place of physical isolation. This has ramifications for later life as the iGen tends to get married later, buy houses later, have children later, and generally delay the onset of adulthood. 

Within the context of the OLC Live interview, I was interested in talking with Prof. Twenge about how we can use a nuanced understanding of the iGen to improve the educational experiences we are building.

If students are less rebellious than students from 20 and 30 years ago, perhaps we can reward their cooperation with trust and quit spying on them course management systems and proctoring services.

If students are battling mental health issues, then we, as higher ed administrators, have a duty to bolster the mental health resources at our schools. As teachers, we should prepare ourselves to talk to our students and be able to refer them to any help they may need.

If iGen students are more inclusive and less dogmatic about religion, politics, gender, and race than their counterparts in prior generations, then we should ward off any sense of apathy or disinterest by recentering the importance of civics and community engagement. This humanistic tolerance could be channeled into community engaged coursework and project based classes that extend learning outside the walls of the school.

I was particularly struck by Prof. Twenge’s observation that we have moved from a historical oral traditions, through the modern period of textual communication, and have now arrived at a period where the current generation communicates via video and images.

In my work in the Office of Digital Learning, and I think this applies to many people in the OLC network, we still have a long way to go in helping faculty get comfortable in creating educational videos for their students. Hour-long lecture captures with powerpoint voice-overs cannot remain the standard. At a minimum, we can help to train faculty on how to break down their content into interesting, manageable chunks. 

Students in the iGen carry in their pocket an abundance of information and content, so we also need to do a better job of teaching students how to curate and analyze information for themselves. 

If we can help them to think critically about what they are finding and to synthesize information from the multitude of available resources, then perhaps we can tap into the affordances of the iGen rather than lamenting the differences between now and when we were in school or our nostalgic imaginations of education in days gone by.

 

John Stewart is the Assistant Director for the Office of Digital Learning at the University of Oklahoma and an integral part of OLC Accelerate 2018 planning team in his role as Virtual Engagement Chair. See all OLC Accelerate Live! Interviews.

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