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How smartphones pushed a generation to breaking point

There’s no shortage of studies that suggest smartphone culture is making millennials and their Generation Z counterparts more stressed, anxious, depressed and unhappy than the generations that have gone before them.

Even though we as a society know that too much screen time is bad for us, we still remain committed to our unhealthy device relationships.

In an article for The Atlantic, researcher Jean Twenge, who’s been studying generational differences for 25 years, has noticed significant shifts in teenage behaviour, and suggests they are spending so much time ‘on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed,’ that the whole generation is on the brink of a mental health crisis.

Blaming our tools

It’s easy to place the blame for this dramatic shift in mood and behaviour on the devices themselves, but according to Grazyna Zajdow, Associate Professor with Deakin University’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences, these widespread changes can also be attributed to larger economic structures and parenting styles in the lives of young people, not just smartphone culture.

She points out that teens are not expected to get part-time jobs to support themselves while at school to the extent that previous generations were; that their education should be a priority. This translates to more time alone in their room, feeding the problem.

Assoc. Prof. Zajdow says parents must take responsibility for enabling bad habits. ‘Perhaps one of the things that parents can do is not give their children smartphones and want to know where they are all the time. Children lie and so do phones. Parents need to change the way they deal with things,’ she says, and points out that prior to smartphones there was more freedom to build independence and trust.

'Perhaps one of the things that parents can do is not give their children smartphones and want to know where they are all the time. Children lie and so do phones. Parents need to change the way they deal with things.'

Associate Professor Grazyna Zajdow, School of Humanities and Social Sciences,
Deakin University

The anxiety of perfection

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the link between the spike in mental health issues and smartphone use lies in the constructed worlds we create with our devices. ‘Young people seem to be more anxious because they’re comparing themselves to their friends. It’s unrealistic,’ she says and adds that knowing people’s online behaviour is carefully curated doesn’t stop anyone from striving for equally unrealistic levels of perfectionism.

But again, she cautions that a generation’s search for perfection isn’t purely a result of handheld technology. As a society, we are increasingly conditioned to avoid failure, channels such as Instagram simply hold up a mirror to this cultural expectation. ‘It’s a problem in education – the more we give students outlines of what we expect so there are fewer mistakes, the less they learn,’ Assoc. Prof. Grazyna Zajdow explains. But some schools are starting to realise that students must learn that imperfection is part of life.

She highlights Ivanhoe Girls’ Grammar School’s recent event ‘Failure Week’, which was designed to combat perfectionism. Teachers were so committed to showing students that it’s acceptable to make mistakes that they projected stories of their own failures onto classroom walls. ‘We are trying to curb an increasing trend we are seeing in students around perfectionism and concerns about grades, outcomes and achievement,’ Bridget McPherson, the school’s head of counselling told The Age.

Hitting reset on humanity

We live in a world where kids dream of being YouTube sensations instead of doctors and these smartphone-generated aspirations are concerning, Assoc. Prof. Zajdow suggests. ‘There is a notion that all we have to do is dream and it will come – that’s nowhere near correct for most humans and it produces horrible humans,’ she says.

Instead, parents, teachers and communities have a responsibility to help the next generation reset their values and rise above the false ideals presented through their smartphones. Rather than focusing on career aspirations, we should be ‘Giving children hope that they can be good people,’ Assoc. Prof. Zajdow argues.

‘Hoping to be a good person and have good relationships – that’s something we can all do,’ she concludes. And doing that begins with putting our smartphones down.

Interested in modern social life and societal change? Consider studying sociology at Deakin University.


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Grazyna Zajdow
Grazyna Zajdow

Associate Professor, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Deakin University
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