Are Today’s Teenagers Smarter and Better Than We Think?

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Emma González, center, is among the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students leading the movement against gun violence. CreditChip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Today’s teenagers have been raised on cellphones and social media. Should we worry about them or just get out of their way?

A recent wave of student protests around the country has provided a close-up view of Generation Z in action, and many adults have been surprised. While there has been much hand-wringing about this cohort, also called iGen or the Post-Millennials, the stereotype of a disengaged, entitled and social-media-addicted generation doesn’t match the poised, media-savvy and inclusive young people leading the protests and gracing magazine covers.

There’s 18-year-old Emma González, whose shaved head, impassioned speeches and torn jeans have made her the iconic face of the #NeverAgain movement, which developed after the 17 shooting deaths in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Naomi Wadler, just 11, became an overnight sensation after confidently telling a national television audience she represented “African-American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper.” David Hogg, a high school senior at Stoneman Douglas, has weathered numerous personal attacks with the disciplined calm of a seasoned politician.

Sure, these kids could be outliers. But plenty of adolescent researchers believe they are not.

“I think we must contemplate that technology is having the exact opposite effect than we perceived,” said Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former dean of freshmen at Stanford University and author of “How to Raise an Adult.” “We see the negatives of not going outside, can’t look people in the eye, don’t have to go through the effort of making a phone call. There are ways we see the deficiencies that social media has offered, but there are obviously tremendous upsides and positives as well.”

“I am fascinated by the phenomenon we are seeing in front of us, and I don’t think it’s unique to these six or seven kids who have been the face of the Parkland adolescent cohort,” says Lisa Damour, an adolescent psychologist and author of “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood.”

“They are so direct in their messaging. They are so clear. They seem unflappable.”

Dr. Damour, who has spent her career talking and listening to teenagers, said she believes the Parkland teens are showing the world the potential of their peer group. “Those of us who live with teenagers and are around them can see something that is different about this generation,” she said.

There is still much to learn about the postmillennial cohort — social scientists haven’t even agreed on when this generation begins, although there seems to be a consensus forming that the year 2000, give or take a few years, is a good place to start. But data collected from various health surveys already show that today’s teens are different from previous generations in many ways.

Many risky behaviors have dropped sharply among today’s teens. Cigarette smoking among teens is at a historic low since peaking in the mid 1990s. Alcohol use has also declined significantly — the number of teens who have used alcohol in the past 30 days is down by half since the 1990s. Teen pregnancy rates have hit historic lows, and teens over all are waiting longer to have sex than their parent’s generation. Teen driving fatalities are down about 64 percent since 1975. Some of that is attributed to safer cars, but teen crashes have declined between 10 and 30 percent in states with tiered licensing systems, and teen drunken driving has dropped while teen seatbelt use has increased.

While most health researchers celebrate these changes in teen health, some scientists think the trends suggest a lower level of maturity among today’s teens. Perhaps teens are safer simply because their reliance on social media and smartphone use means they are getting out less. In September, the journal Child Development published a study by Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, noting that there is a decline in a number of “adult” activities among today’s teens. In seven large, nationally representative surveys of eight million American adolescents from 1976 to 2016, fewer adolescents in recent years are having sex, dating, drinking alcohol, driving, working for pay and going out without their parents.

“The big picture is that they are taking longer to grow up,” said Dr. Twenge, whose latest book is “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.”

In an article in The Atlantic last fall titled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?,” Dr. Twenge argued that teens are more comfortable in their bedrooms or on smartphones or social media than at a party. While they are physically safer than past generations as a result, rates of teen depression and suicide are on the rise. “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades,” she wrote. “Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

But a number of social scientists and adolescent health researchers disagree with that conclusion. While teen depression and suicide rates are worrisome, there is no causal link to show those trends are the result of smartphones and social media. In fact, a literature review by Unicef researchers in December found that moderate use of digital technology tends to be beneficial for children’s mental well-being, while no use or too much use is associated with a “small negative impact.” The larger issues that affect a child’s well-being are family functioning, social dynamics at school and socio-economic conditions, the report concluded.

Don Tapscott, author of “Grown Up Digital,” said he believes today’s teenagers are better communicators than any previous generation. “They didn’t grow up being the passive recipients of somebody else’s broadcast,” he said. “They grew up being interactors and communicators. In the 1960s we had a generation gap. What we have today is a generation lap — they are lapping their parents on the digital track.”

The clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel interviewed groups of middle school and high school students around the country in 2015 and 2016 for her new book, “Voice Lessons for Parents: What to Say, How to Say It and When to Listen.” Dr. Mogel spoke with diverse kids from various regions and walks of life, but found herself consistently impressed by their thoughtfulness, how much they liked their parents, and how much they cared about the world around them.

“The press and general public like to see them as spoiled and not having to work hard for anything except grades and being very entitled,” Dr. Mogel said. “But they’re courageous, energetic, optimistic and really smart.”

Neil Howe, a historian whose books include “Millennials Rising,” said that unlike earlier generations, today’s teens have accepted the structures of society and have learned to work within those boundaries. “They’re very good at using rules to make their point, and they’re absolutely excellent at negotiating with their parents, and negotiating in a reasonable way about how to bend these rules in a way that will make them more effective and give them more space,” he said. “This is not a ‘throw the brick through the window and burn stuff down’ group of kids at all. They’re working very constructively, arm-in-arm with older people they trust, to make big institutions work better and make them stronger and more effective.”

Ms. Lythcott-Haims notes that the current crop of teenagers is the first generation to grow up with active shooter drills since kindergarten. “I think what we might have here is a generation that really defines itself by the markers of their childhoods,” she said. “In addition to being marked by these gun violence tragedies, they came to consciousness with a black man in the White House and smartphones in their hands.”

What does all this mean for the future of today’s teens? All of the researchers agreed there is still much more to learn about this cohort, but what we know so far is promising.

“We are in the process of distilling the data and discerning who they are, but I am excited,” said Ms. Lythcott-Haims. “We don’t know who they will be in their 20s, but already they have agency, the sense of your own existence, your own right to make decisions and your own responsibility for outcomes and consequences. That’s what we need to have to be mentally well. I think these folks could turn out not to be just leaders, but to be a generation that we look back on and end up calling one of the greatest.”

To Raise Resilient Kids, Be a Resilient Parent

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As parents, we want our children to be emotionally resilient — able to handle life’s ups and downs. But parents’ ability to foster resilience in our children hinges a great deal on our own emotional resilience.

“A parent’s resilience serves as a template for a child to see how to deal with challenges, how to understand their own emotions,” said Dr. Dan Siegel, author of “The Yes Brain,” which focuses on cultivating children’s resilience.

Yet for many parents, taking the temper tantrums and meltdowns in stride presents a challenge — especially if we have unrealistic expectations of what childhood is really all about.

“Part of it is this idea that we have that parenthood should be this amazing, blissful, perfect culmination of our hopes and dreams,” said Katherine Reynolds Lewis, author of the forthcoming book “The Good News About Bad Behavior.”

Ms. Lewis said that anger, tears and other outbursts are a natural part of any child’s development — what she calls “the messiness of childhood.”

But parents who are unable or unwilling to confront that messiness may view their child’s outbursts as a problem that urgently needs to be solved.

When that happens, Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist and editor of the site AhaParenting.com, said: “We ridicule kids, we blame them, we tell them it’s their own fault; we isolate them by sending them to their rooms.”

The nature of the parent’s response may vary, Dr. Markham said, but the message is the same — that anger, sadness or frustration are unacceptable.

This, Dr. Markham noted, is the opposite of resilience; instead, it’s a fragile rigidity that leaves both parent and child fearful that outsized emotions could shatter them.

In contrast to this fragility, parents who don’t flinch from the power of emotions like anger have a greater capacity to absorb challenging interactions with their children, said Dr. Siegel, who is executive director of the Mindsight Institute. And don’t worry if this kind of resilience doesn’t come naturally, he said — with practice, it gets easier.

Here are some tips for making those difficult interactions easier to absorb:

Take a Breath

To respond thoughtfully to our child’s outbursts, we have to first silence the alarm bells going off inside our head. Dr. Markham coaches parents to “hit the pause button” before taking any action, even in the face of a screaming child. In her research, Ms. Lewis learned that parents and children often synchronize their heart rates, breathing and other physiological functions, so calming ourselves down can have a measurable, physical effect on our child — not to mention on our own ability to face a situation calmly.

Let Emotions Happen

Resilience depends on an understanding that emotions — even those considered “negative,” like sadness, grief or anger — aren’t a problem to be fixed, but a natural consequence of being human. “The thing about emotions is that they don’t last forever; there’s a beginning, middle and end to all of them,” said Carla Naumburg, a clinical social worker and author of “Ready, Set, Breathe: Practicing Mindfulness With Your Children for Fewer Meltdowns and a More Peaceful Family.” More than that, allowing ourselves — and our children — to experience and express a full range of emotions is vital to our well-being. Dr. Markham noted that it is actually when we don’t express our emotions that we lose control of them — not the other way around.

Get Curious

So often as parents, we ask “why” questions about unwanted behavior (“Why can’t he remember to put his socks in the hamper?”). But Dr. Naumburg said that asking ourselves “Why am I responding this way?” may be a more useful question, especially when our buttons are getting pushed. “Notice what’s happening with you, and start to take responsibility for it,” Dr. Markham suggested.

Set Boundaries With Compassion

Establishing and holding the line on boundaries can lead to some of the most unpleasant moments in the parent-child relationship — but approaching those moments with compassion and kindness goes a long way toward keeping your blood pressure down. Dr. Markham and Dr. Naumburg suggested verbally acknowledging your child’s feelings and comforting him or her doesn’t have to mean giving in to their demands. “There are times when I will sit with my daughter in my lap, as she’s crying, and snuggle her as I’m saying ‘no’ to her,” Dr. Naumburg said. “She’s still crying, but we’re still connected.”

Examine Your Yeses and Nos

Susan Newman, a social psychologist and author of “The Book of No: 365 Ways To Say It and Mean It,” said parents should be especially mindful of the times you’re most likely to give in to your child’s outburst. “If you can recognize what triggers you to an automatic ‘yes,’ it’s time to step back and say, ‘Hold it a minute, why am I doing this?’” Dr. Newman suggested. “We’re living in this culture of ‘yes’ parenting,” Dr. Newman said, “and it’s easier to say yes than to deal with a child’s meltdown.” But parents can consider, “How will a ‘no’ help?” as a way to explore the reason for a particular boundary so that you and your child can better understand it.

Get Some Distance

When we identify closely with our children, or rely on them as a barometer of our own self-worth, we set ourselves up for disappointment (or worse) when things don’t go exactly as we planned. “Our egos are very tied up in our parenting,” said Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of “How to Raise an Adult.” Dr. Naumburg noted that this is partially informed by a cultural narrative that suggests that “If the kids are not O.K., then it’s because we parents have done something wrong.” As Ms. Lythcott-Haims put it, “If we can get a life, maybe our kids can have one too.”

Want to Raise Successful Kids?

03/16/2016
Bill Murphy Jr.contact.billmurphyjr.com

DAN BARNES VIA GETTY IMAGES

If there’s one thing many parents want more than to lead happy, successful lives, it’s to make sure their kids lead happy, successful lives.

Now a former dean of Stanford University freshmen, Julie Lythcott-Haims, says many parents’ hearts may be in the right place—but they’re screwing things up big-time nonetheless.

In her New York Times bestseller How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, Lythcott-Haims says the problem is a phenomenon we’ve been hearing about since the 1990s—one that’s now crashing hard into American society: helicopter parenting.

She summed up her experience in an interview with the Los Angeles Times:

“Working with the quote-unquote best and brightest, I was seeing more and more [students] who seemed less and less capable of doing the stuff of life. They were incredibly accomplished in the transcript and GPA sense but less with their own selves, evidenced by how frequently they communicated with a parent, texting multiple times a day, needing a parent to tell them what to do.

“I’d been scolding other people for five or six years. One night I started cutting my 10-year-old son’s meat and realized I was enabling dependence on me. I could see the link between parenting and why my college students, though very accomplished academically, were rather existentially impotent.”

“Existentially impotent.”
Ouch! That may be the most original and cutting insult I’ve ever heard.

What’s more, Lythcott-Haims said it applies largely to some of the most privileged kids in our society. Students from less affluent families—who statistically speaking might be more likely to join the military or work while attending community college—seemed to her to be at least as self-sufficient as their predecessors.

But the students she was dealing with as dean of freshmen students, who were attending one of the most elite universities in the world, and who were more likely to graduate and have amazing opportunities, were overwhelmed and unable to function as real adults.

No phone calls?
For example, Lythcott-Haims cited the idea that many Millennials—using her own daughters as examples—seem “paralyzed” by the idea of having to make a simple phone call, because they never had to do so while growing up.

(Her solution with her daughters was to give them tasks that could be resolved only by making phone calls—“because you need to know how to talk to a stranger on a phone and ask a question.”)

So what do we do about this? Her advice for parents, she said in a speech reported by the Chicago Tribune, is to “put ourselves out of a job” by doing a few specific things:

Remember the difference between “I” and “we.”
“If you say ‘we’ when you mean your son or your daughter—as in, ‘We’re on the travel soccer team’—it’s a hint to yourself that you are intertwined in a way that is unhealthy.”

Be your kids’ advocate, not their lawyer.
“If you’re arguing with teachers and principals and coaches and umpires all the time, it’s a sign you’re a little too invested. When we’re doing all the arguing, we are not teaching our kids to advocate for themselves.”

Remember that their work is their work.
Don’t do their homework, she said. “Teach them the skills they’ll need in real life, and give them enough leash to practice those skills on their own. … Chores build a sense of accountability.”

Bottom line, let them try things—and fail.
“We want so badly to help them by shepherding them from milestone to milestone and by shielding them from failure and pain. But overhelping causes harm,” Lythcott-Haimes wrote in How to Raise an Adult. “It can leave young adults without the strengths of skill, will and character that are needed to know themselves and to craft a life.”