Help Me Understand My Phone Focused Child!

We hear quite a bit these days about the characteristics of and problems faced by the Millennial generation--we know about their struggles with student debt, for example, and their tendency to live with parents longer than previous generations had. But what about the age group below them, sometimes dubbed Generation Z? Who are they? What are their lives like? What is on their mind? Many of us have children or grandchildren who fall into this emerging generation, and learning about this demographic can help us better understand and assist these young family members.

Generation Z Distinctives

It's difficult for researchers to delineate between the end of one generation and the start of the next. Pew Research, like many others, decided to count those born up to 1996 as Millennials but those born the next year as belonging to Generation Z. They have noticed a variety of features that differentiate those generations. For example, Millennials had clear memories of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but Gen-Z'ers were too young to be much affected by these. Unlike Gen-Z'ers, Millennials were entering the job force or nearing the end of their educations when the Great Recession hit. And whereas Millennials experienced the growth of the internet and smart phones when they were quite young, Gen Z'ers have never been without these defining features of 21st-Century culture.

Researchers have begun gathering information about members of Generation Z (especially those old enough to fill out surveys). In the rest of this article, I'll look briefly at how Gen Z's have been influenced by technology. In a subsequent post I'll look at their mental health and the things that cause them the most stress.

The Phone's the Thing

Gen Z'ers are proficient with a wide variety of technology, but they are particularly attached to their smartphones. According to this report from the GlobalWebIndex, they spend an average of 3 hours 38 minutes per day online on their phones. They are the first generation for whom smartphone use exceeds use of PCs, laptops, and tablets combined. Not that they don't use these other devices regularly; they average about three and a half hours a day on such other ways of connecting to the internet. The cumulative effects of all this connectivity are tremendous. Here are some statistics compiled by Ryan Jenkins, a specialist in Millennials and Generation Z. Surveys of Gen Z'ers have found that:

  • 91 percent have their digital devices in bed with them in the evening
  • 40 percent say that working Wi-Fi is more important to them than working bathrooms
  • 44 percent check on social media at least hourly, and 7 percent check more often than every 15 minutes
  • 82 percent think carefully about what they put on social media
  • about a quarter say that Snapchat is essential for their relationships
  • 42 percent say that social media affects their self-esteem (compared to 31% of Millennials, 23% of Generation X and 20% of Baby Boomers)

Teen concern over peer acceptance is nothing new. What is new, however, is that most of today's teens don't ever get out of the social fishbowl--they are subject to peer judgments all day (and often all night) long. Thus, the pressure they are under is greater than most of us ever endured. As Psychologist Jean Twenge reports, high levels of phone use are associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression, though which factor causes the other isn't entirely clear. Twenge also documents that, as phone use has increased, a wide variety of other behaviors common among adolescence--getting a driver's license, working, dating, hanging out with friends--have decreased. Life online seems to be replacing, not just supplementing, life in the real world.

How Should Parents Respond?

Given the negative effects that smartphone use has on members of this generation, should parents just take their kid's phones away? Trying to shield kids from new technologies has long been tempting for parents, but it seldom has worked out well. Since Generation Z will have to live in a world of connectivity, forbidding access will leave them unprepared for jobs or relationships that will require smartphone proficiency.

Teaching responsible use is better than total prohibition. That will require conversations about both the positives and negatives of inhabiting virtual spaces. Parents need to model responsible phone use by putting their own phones aside some of the time, especially when interacting with other family members. Having a designated family-wide time when all electronic devices are turned off can help teens develop other interests and can foster healthy family interactions. Teens must demonstrate that they can be trusted to handle smartphones responsibly; until they have shown they can be depended on, it's advisable to limit access to phones and to restrict what social media apps are being used.

"In this world you will have trouble," Jesus told his disciples. "But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). Each generation faces a slightly different world and has to discover how Jesus can help them overcome the troubles of that world. Generation Z will live in an online world. Their parents and other family members can help prepare them to exercise Christian wisdom and discretion in that world.

About the author — Dr. Robert Ritzema

Bob Ritzema is a clinical psychologist, having received his doctorate from Kent State University. He has worked for over 25 years as a psychotherapist and more than 10 years as a college professor. He retired from Methodist University in 2012 to return to his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan in order to assist his parents. He currently works part-time at Psychology Associates of Grand Rapids and worships at Monroe Community Church. He has two sons and three grandchildren.

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