Blaming young people for problems they don’t have is a red herring.

I Don't Think Gen Z Has a Problem with Screens by Jennifer Brown, oneofthejenns, generation gap
Who doesn’t have a portable screen? Photo credit: Gian Cescon on Unsplash.

Not long ago, I was sitting in a theater awaiting the opening curtain of a play. The house lights were up and people milled around, settling into the snug seats. One of the artistic directors took the stage to make preliminary announcements, reminding audience members to unwrap hard candies before the play began and to silence their electronic devices. With a startling flurry of activity, candy wrappers crackled around me: I realized that the Sunday matinee has a very narrow and evident demographic, namely, the over-60 portion of the population. Heads in shades of silver and bald bent over still-glowing screens; hands fished in purses. Finally, the expected hush fell.

I know I’ve been guilty of indulging in the stereotyping assumption that people in the generation ahead of me — Baby Boomers — are likely to be uncomfortable with technology like smart phones and applications like Twitter, while the generations coming to adulthood are “digital natives.” Even watching as the population active on Facebook has exhibited clear signs confirming current grandparenthood and former hippiedom, I’ve subscribed, if casually — to the notion that the generations younger than me — Millennials and Gen Z — are the ones with the hard habit to break when it comes to screens, games, and selfie-promotion. By conventional wisdom, such a belief is logical: young people are more likely than older adults to embrace new technologies, and it seems natural that they are less able to resist impulsive, even addictive use of them. They have trouble exerting self-control, saith the elder cohort, somewhat smugly, nibbling their patiently-awaited second cookie.

Bobbing abundantly in the stream of news-like content that flows along the various channels of the internet are pieces that range from what appears to be reportage to obvious opinion-vehicles on the subject of the many deficiencies of Millennials and Gen Z. So persistent is the noise about which generation should be revered (Greatest? Silent? Boomer?) and which is destroying civilization as we know it (each in its turn) that I’ve started paying more attention, wondering what is feeding the frenzy of characterization, diagnosis, and even accusation. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal finally pushed my buttons: in “Dating 101 for the Romantically Challenged Gen Z,” the reporter describes a course taught at Boston College by an instructor who professes to help her students learn to navigate relationships by having them complete the assignment of asking someone on a date (never mind the fact that the course itself seems to be something akin to “Western Civ,” not a course in, say, psychology or sociology, even). The professor’s assumptions about her young adult students seemed to dovetail neatly with the narrative that has been crafted and adopted over the last ten to fifteen years regarding both Millennials and their younger “Z” siblings: the prevalence of electronic devices and connectedness via their many applications has prevented the now-under-35 population from being able to form and sustain “normal” face-to-face relationships with other humans. (See WSJ article, Bernstein, 3/11/19, here.)

It’s such a neat and obvious cause and effect — young people’s addictive use of screens leads to social dysfunction that can only be assuaged through the wisdom and generous guidance of the older and wiser — that it cannot possibly be accurate. Humans are not that simple; generational identities, on top of being an artificial and shaky construct at best, are a fiction that tends to serve the interests of the narrators who are established and powerful enough to control the story. Indeed, many of the narrators of our moment are members of the generation that raised the alarm in the ’60s, upending the traditional dynamic of generational conflict: “Don’t trust anyone over 30!” By their own (former) logic, they are not to be trusted.

In the darkening theater, in the seconds before the final act began, I looked around the audience. An astonishing number of faces glowed, pairs of reading glasses trained on screens for a hasty last second of texting or Candy Crush until the stage lit up and came alive again. Before intermission, more than one phone’s ringer had interrupted the play. There would be more interruptions before the play was done. I had left my own phone in the car, dreading even the possibility that it might make some unwanted noise. I wondered how it was that the elder generation of people (along with, in fairness, my own — Gen X), who are so vocal about the perils of screentime for the young, could be so cavalier about their own apparent inability to part with their portable screens for just two hours of live, face-to-face entertainment.

I don’t think that one age cohort has more or less of a problem with screen-addiction than another. I also don’t believe that the use of social media apps, games, phone-cameras, and texting has had a more detrimental effect on Millennials and Gen Z than it has on the rest of us. In my years as a teacher of high-schoolers, I didn’t find the kids, regardless of how much time they spent with their phones, to be lacking in social skills or failing to establish relationships, romantic or otherwise, at any greater rate than I noted those deficiencies in my colleagues, who ranged in age from Millennial to Boomer. Over twenty-five years of working with teenagers, I found them to be pretty much the same, whether they were young members of my own generation or the avant-garde of Gen Z, digital natives or speakers of digital as a second tongue.

Continuing to promulgate a narrative that pits generations against each other is both a distraction from real, serious social and political issues and an instrument wielded to discredit the young by those who have more voice in the game, for now. It’s difficult to feel that one’s star is fading, and tempting to scoff at the seemingly rash and boundless idealism of people who haven’t been adults quite long enough to see their dreams deflated. But the Millennials and Gen Z are actually our future. We can’t bully them silent; we can’t medicate them into submission; we can’t dazzle them into unquestioningly accepting the greater wisdom of those who’ve gone before — not when those who’ve gone before are revealed to be every bit as vulnerable to vice and impulse as they are. Not worse, but not better, either. Instead of brandishing smartphones as the defining emblem of generational conflict, even as we secretly long ourselves to complete another level of an inane video game or post a few hundred more photos, we should consider countering the well-worn old story with a new one: a story of generations supporting each other in a society with benefits for all, joining together to solve problems with the wealth of resources to be found in the compounding of experience, energy, idealism, and perspective. The current problems, ones that seem almost insurmountable, like the welter of enviromental crises, or the knotted skein of race, gender, and class discrimination and animosity, surely require the best solutions that all of us have to offer, regardless of age.

I’m not worried that those younger than I am will destroy the world; I’m hopeful that they will have the energy, desire, and wisdom to work on making it better than ever. Boomers and Gen X, the educators who raised the Millennials and Gen Z, invented and promoted the idea that “21st-Century skills” would include, prominently, collaboration. We elders weren’t wrong to teach it, but we should start living by our own wisdom.

Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.