The Social Dilemma's conclusion that we are all helpless consumers, hoodwinked by big tech, is a depressing misunderstanding of humanity.
There is a entire new generation in America that is not adapting to life. Addicted to phones, iPads, and other screens, young Americans are impaired when it comes to wrestling with their darker selves or going out into the world—both of which are necessary and humbling stages of the natural maturation of a human being. The result has been the kinds of mental and spiritual problems that we see manifest among the young: eating disorders, depression, social awkwardness. On college campuses students have meltdowns over visiting speakers, shriek hysterically over minor school policies they don’t like, and retreat into “safe spaces.”
The extent of the problem is evident in the new book by the psychologist Jean M. Twenge, 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. Twenge argues that iGen—those born in 1995 and later and who “grew up with cell phones, had an Instagram page before they started high school, and do not remember a time before the Internet”—are losing their souls and minds to technology.
Compared to previous generations, iGen high school seniors are less likely to have sex, drive, work, drink alcohol, date, or go out without their parents. A recent study published in the journal Child Development found that the percentage of adolescents in the United States who have a driver’s license, who have tried alcohol, who date, and who work for pay has dropped steeply since 1976, with the most precipitous decreases in the past decade.
“Teens are hanging out with their friends less, but they are not replacing that time with homework, extracurricular, paid work, or housework; they are replacing it with screen time,” writes Twenge. She adds that “iGen high school seniors spent an average of 2 ¼ hours a day texting on their cell phones, about 2 hours a day on the Internet, 1 ½ hours a day on electronic gaming, and about a half hour on video chat in the most recent survey. That totals to six hours a day with new media.”
Her book is filled with charts and graphs showing that the percentage of young people who feel lonely or unfulfilled has skyrocketed in the past 10 years. “Given the timing,” says the author, it is smart phones that are “the most likely culprits, increasing loneliness both directly and indirectly by replacing in-person social interaction . . . iGen’ers are addicted to their phones, and they know it.”
Twinge notes that prior to the digital revolution, young people were forced to learn coping skills—to deal with bullies, to have bad experiences that warned them about speeding and drugs, and to have a private life with their friends that involved face-to-face interactions, with all the challenges such interactions pose to awkward adolescents.
Kids had to do what Carl Jung called “integrating the shadow.” As young adult literature like Lord of the Rings, A Wizard of Earthsea, and Harry Potter revealed to developing readers, the shadow is the unknown “dark side” of our personality—the negative, primitive human emotions and impulses like sexual lust, power strivings, selfishness, greed, envy, anger, or rage. Jung did not confuse the shadow with the mystery and reality of objective evil. He was careful to separate the two. He argued that a wise man has healthy respect for his shadow, and can even find that it “also displays a number of good qualities, such as normal instincts, appropriate reactions, realistic insights, creative impulses.’”
The point of all this risk and danger, ultimately, is to develop genuine happiness, tolerance and virtue—to experience and expand upon what the theologian George Weigel calls “genuine freedom.” Knowing your dark side helps one move more fully into the light—to accumulate the values of perseverance, humility, and unselfish love that lead to good choices, which then leads to moral freedom, which matures into a well-integrated human being. Truly free people get to say “yes” because they’ve learned to say “no” to hundreds of bad choices.
They don’t make these mistakes if they are in their bedrooms chained to the Internet. Teen pregnancy, teen drug abuse, even teen prejudices are all in general decline. But Twenge’s research indicates that the teens who are less prone to these things are, on the other hand, maturing more slowly. And they are pathologically over-sensitive. When we’re young and our lust leads us to make a pass at a woman and we are rebuffed, or we get into a fight and are beaten, or we injure ourselves after a foolhardy daredevil move, the physical pain and feeling of humiliation more empathetically connect us with others and allow us to accept our limits. They make us grow up and accept ourselves as flawed human beings—as sinners.
Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, before the world was infected with digital devices, there was room for the shadows of young people. On any weekend in the 1980s kids could go out and do things that today would have caused a teen to be exposed on YouTube or otherwise publicly shamed. I have a vivid memory of a night where a group of us were in a bar drinking—the legal age was 18 back then—and at around midnight we decided to make a three-hour drive to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. We all quietly went back to our parents’ houses to pack; I still remember stuffing shorts into a bag while my mother slept and my father snored just yards away.
It was something out of the myth of Iron John, as the author and men’s movement activist Robert Bly famously described it. As Bly said, there comes a point when a child has to steal the key of his liberation from under his mother’s pillow. In fact both boys and girls need, at a certain point, to assert their independence and embrace the dangers and risks of the real world.
Kids locked away in their rooms, under the sheets and eyes glued to their iPhones, will never get near Bly’s key. The members of iGen are slaves to their phones and tablets—electronic narcotics that may ultimately prove more destructive than the current opioid epidemic.