July 12, 2023
Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State, has been sounding the alarm for years that the mental health of American young people is falling apart under the influence of smartphones and social media. She’s bulwarked her case impressively in her 2023 book Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents―and What They Mean for America’s Future.
Granted, I’m not a fan of generational labels since I can never remember what the arbitrary terms are or what birth years they cover. Indeed, even the pundits specializing in generation-watching can’t agree. For example, Twenge defines Gen Z as those born between 1995 and 2012 (ages 11 to 28), while the Pew Research Center uses 1997 as its first year. As I recently pointed out in “Generational Gobbledygook: Astrology for MBAs,” it would be tremendously simpler just to use decade of birth: Group people born in the 1990s as ’90s Babies and so forth.
But, all that said, Twenge is doing important work in pointing out the unexpected but alarming problems plaguing Americans born around the year 2000 (who, don’t get me started, are not millennials).
She begins her chapter on Gen Z with the craziest fad plaguing the new generation, transgenderism, whose explosion in recent years Twenge finds concerning. She notes that in a Census Bureau survey of over one million American adults in 2021–2022:
While only 1 out of 1000 Boomers [born 1946–1964] identifies as transgender…23 out of 1000 Gen Z young adults (2.30%) identify as trans—20 times more…. As for nonbinary identities, fewer than 1% of Boomers identify as non-binary, compared to more than 3 percent of Gen Z young adults. Combined with the more than 2 percent who are trans, that means 1 out of 18 young adults identified as something other than male or female in 2021 and 2022.
One out of 18 is not a trivial number.
You might think that you and yours have nothing to worry about because you live in a socially conservative red state. And, indeed, on many of Twenge’s measures of psychological distress, liberal young women are worse off than conservative ones. (Twenge notes that while liberal girls used to go out with their friends more often than did conservative ones, now they stay at home and scroll through social media more.)
But not on trans. Twenge’s data shows virtually no difference in 2021 between the percentage of 18- to 26-year-olds identifying as transgender in states that voted for Hillary in 2016 and states that voted for Trump.
Rural vs. urban location also didn’t make much difference. In the 2021–2022 Household Pulse Survey, the percentage of trans Gen Z’ers was about the same in rural areas (2.2 percent) as in urban/suburban areas (1.9 percent). There was also no difference in the percentage of transgender young adults in liberal big cities (like New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and San Francisco) versus the rest of the country.
Twenge notes another generational difference. Most Boomers and Gen X’ers (born 1965–1979) who say they are transgender claim to have gone from male to female, but the current Gen Z surge is powered by young girls deciding to declare themselves boys.
Moreover, Twenge is dubious about the new conventional wisdom that there have always been a huge number of people “assigned” the wrong sex at birth but they’ve only recently been liberated to come out:
If growing acceptance were the only factor, though, the number of transgender people should have increased among older generations as well—but it didn’t.
In other words, trans is a fad, a very bad fad among fashion-vulnerable young women.
What about the LGB part of LGBT?
In 2021, 16.1% of young adults (1 out of 6) identified as something other than straight, more than twice as many than just seven years before…. In contrast, identifying as LGB barely budged among those older than 42.
Once again, the growth looks like status-seeking social contagion among moody young women:
[The] changes are driven almost exclusively by an increase in bisexual people, particularly bisexual women…. In the Household Pulse Survey in 2021–2022, 23 percent of Gen Z women identified as bisexual….Thus, nearly 3 out of 10 Gen Z women identified as something other than straight.
This all sounds very hubba-hubba, but in reality:
In fact, Gen Z is having markedly less sex than Gen X’ers and Millennials did as young adults…. For Gen Z, it’s a sex depression.
They expend more effort posting about gender identity than engaging in sexual intercourse.
The sex depression is part of a general trend toward kids these days growing up slower. They’re also trying alcohol later in life, as well as being older when they get their first job and driver’s license. Conservatives obsess over grooming, but in reality the bigger problem is not the prevalence of sex, drugs, and rock & roll but their disappearance.
Probably the main vice that happens earlier these days is exposure to pornography. Twenge suspects that the effects of porn might be fueling these unanticipated trends. For example, the unpredicted message young people seem to be taking from watching pornography is “Don’t try this at home, kids. Sex is only for trained professionals.” But she is frustrated by how little social science research has been done regarding our big experiment with pornography becoming ubiquitously available.
Not surprisingly, this “slower life trajectory” leads to delays in marrying and having children, which can turn into missing out altogether on creating the next generation.
In general, Gen Z is deplorably cautious:
There’s a long tradition of teens driving fast, fighting with each other, and reveling in risk…. Gen Z is different: Instead of rejecting adults’ interest in safety and protection, they have embraced it…. Gen Z also extends the concept of safety beyond preventing physical harm to preventing emotional harm, placing a premium on what they call “emotional safety.”
Thus the huge increase in demands by college students for censorship of unwelcome science and opinion.
Twenge is disturbed that 40 percent of Gen Z’ers describe the American founding fathers as villains rather than heroes. She sees this as reflective of the current cult of victimhood, which is bad for human thriving.
Twenge reports that the NIH’s Monitoring the Future survey of 12th graders that has been ongoing since 1976 found that there was little divergence between young white Democrats’ and young white Republicans’ views of the police until 2014, the date BLM became celebrated due to Ferguson. But:
By the 2020s, political party was a better predictor of teens’ views of the police than race.
Strikingly, in the polling carried out in February and early March of 2020 (i.e., before both George Floyd and Covid), white Democrat kids suddenly went from 40 percent to 75 percent anti-police, higher even than black kids. It appears that some of the tumultuous events of 2020, such as the “racial reckoning,” were less spontaneous than socially constructed by preexisting agendas, such as The New York Times’ 2019 itinerary to get rid of Trump by promoting racism 24/7 as its plan B after the ignominious failure of its plan A, RussiaGate.
Twenge is now more convinced than ever that social life going online has been a disaster for young people’s mental health:
People who don’t sleep enough and who spend less time with others face to face are more likely be depressed, and that’s what has happened en masse to teens and young adults.
All this has especially damaged the more social sex, females. Girls spend more time online comparing themselves to other girls and, inevitably, finding that they don’t match up with the prettiest girls out there in cyberspace. Boys spend more time blasting away at enemies in their digital games, which are a waste, but at least Call of Duty doesn’t gnaw at them psychologically the way Instagram and TikTok do to girls.
Unlike with the trans craze, the left is suffering more from the rise in depression. (The Covid era of course made emotional disorders worse, but the trend lines were all pointing in the wrong direction even before 2020.)
I know very little about teenage girls these days, so take my opinion for what it’s worth. I suspect that Twenge is right about technology being the prime culprit. But I’ve also long argued that the ideology of the Great Awokening that emerged around 2013 plays a role in the recent rise of unhappiness among young women.
I think what happened is that the emergence of screens you take with you everywhere (the iPhone was released in 2007) and the concurrent increase in user-generated social media allowed the pretty girls to be in the face of the not-so-pretty girls all the time.
In the past, when the popular girls didn’t invite you into their clique, you could just hang out with your funny-looking friends. But, as Twenge documents, nobody hangs out in real life anymore because you all can’t resist constantly checking in on your social superiors on your smartphones.
And that hurts.
In response, the homely liberal masses adopted the previously esoteric po-mo ideology that everything that humans naturally consider good in a young woman—such as beauty, fertility, health, cheerfulness, charm, and sanity—is socially constructed by the bad people to privilege themselves.
Of course, believing that the good things in life that encourage marriage and childbearing are a giant malign conspiracy doesn’t make anybody happier.