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In middle school English classes, I was forced to read a variety of anecdotal, panicky pieces about us young people and our digital technologies. 

The authors would lament that the young’uns these days would never learn proper grammar because they only ever write "LOL." The conclusion was always that vaguely-defined “technology” would ruin our generation, and probably cause the downfall of civilization.

A new portrait of our generation has emerged in recent years. It is still gloomy, but different in a key respect: It is specific, rigorous and evidence-based. 

Jean Twenge’s book "Generations," published in April, is a key step forward in this understanding. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University, analyzes 24 datasets covering 39 million people to understand the difference between Americans of all ages.

Many of Twenge’s stats on Gen Z (born 1995 to 2012) reveal in greater detail what you probably already knew: On average, we are more depressed, more pessimistic, more gender fluid and less religious than any other generation.

One graph in Twenge's book reveals around 41 percent of surveyed 8th, 10th and 12th graders said that they often felt lonely in 2021. While potentially exacerbated by the pandemic, the upward trend of depressive symptoms started earlier.

In the Gen Z chapter, most of the graphs on mental health issues show no clear trend before 2012, but after? Spikes in the number of teenagers who were lonely, dissatisfied with themselves and meeting the standards for clinical depression. At the same time, there were declines in time spent in person with friends and willingness to take risks.

What happened in 2012? While I tend to think our generation was doomed by Taylor Swift’s release of "Red" that year, Twenge points to a different culprit: It was in 2012 that a majority of teens first owned smartphones and the percentage that used social media daily neared three-quarters.

“The way teens spent their time outside of school fundamentally changed after 2012: They spent more time on digital media, less time with each other in person, and less time sleeping,” Twenge writes.

As evidence has accumulated that widespread adoption of smartphones and social media actually caused rising depression, Twenge and New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt have been at the forefront of documenting it.

Twenge recognizes the Catch-22 of social media for Gen Z: It causes anxiety and depression for some, but you’ll be left out if you aren’t on it. You can’t choose to live like a Boomer by marrying young, and you can’t choose to live like a Gen Xer by deleting Instagram. What your peers do affects you.

Gen Z has continued trends that predate us, too. Declining religiosity became clear among Millennials, and every generation since the Boomers has delayed marriage and child-rearing, which Twenge calls the “slow-life strategy.” Declines in the number of middle and high schoolers who have worked for pay, drunk alcohol, dated and gotten driver’s licenses began around the turn of the century with Millenials.

While Twenge has abundant knowledge of Gen Z, she seems overconfident in her ability to predict the future. She predicts that “the future is nonbinary” and emphasizes that a majority of Gen Z respondents rejected the gender binary in a 2021 poll.

However, a poll released since the book’s publication found that 57 percent of Gen Z believed that there were only two genders. Twenge predicts that “more of the U.S. population will identify as Democrats with each passing year,” but recent data show Millennials shifting right as they age. 

Twenge makes lots of predictions, and some will prove prescient, but forecasting is notoriously difficult even for the best-informed.

Perhaps Twenge is so confident because of her claim that all generational differences are ultimately the result of technological change. Twenge’s “Technology Model of Generations” is more accurate than previous attempts to define generations, but leaves little room for contingency and human agency in history.

Human choice lurks behind Twenge’s narrative, though. World War II helped define the Silent Generation and Boomers, but wasn’t technologically inevitable. 

"Generations" also shows that unhappiness, loneliness and depressive symptoms have increased more rapidly among Gen Z liberals than conservatives — who were slower to adopt social media and are more hesitant towards social changes in general (Haidt has a different interpretation). If Twenge is right, that’s an important way that people made choices in response to technological development, and choices helped shape generations.

If I could tell my middle school self about our generation now, I’d say this: We’ve got some serious issues, and any society in which half of its youth don’t enjoy life needs to do some serious soul-searching. Still, as individuals and as a generation, we can act to define ourselves. The only way to be doomed is to forget that you have the power to shape your own destiny.

@SatchelWalton

@dthlifestyle | lifestyle@dailytarheel.com

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