The worst example of this in recent memory was Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?, a particularly panicky Atlantic cover story by psychology professor, corporate consultant, and onetime millennial-whisperer Jean M. Twenge. The Atlantic has a particular affinity for this kind of trendy worrying dressed up as somber big-think — remember Is Google Making Us Stupid? — and Twenge delivered it in droves here, arguing that the time today’s teens spend alone with smartphones is poisoning them forever.
Twenge has been on the youth-scare beat for a while, and it’s notable that she has now turned to post-millennial fearmongering. I first encountered her work back in the mid-2000s, around the time when Twitter was launching and Time magazine was declaring us all “Person of the Year.”
Her first major foray into millennial thinkery was her 2006 book Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—And More Miserable Than Ever Before. Twenge expanded on the theme in 2009 with The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.
These books pandered to the same complaints old people have been making about young people since time immemorial, with just enough techno-scare to make them seem fresh and relevant. And they established Twenge as a go-to quote factory for cranky think-pieces on millennials, ushering in a new wave of hand wringing over our supposed shortcomings.
“Why are young adults so miserable?” asked a 2006 Today Show segment on Twenge’s work. “Are social norms steadily unraveling?” wondered USA Today the same year. “Too much self-esteem can be bad for your child,” warned Alternet. Many teens are “overconfident” and “have wildly unrealistic expectations,” said Fox News. A 2009 ABC story on Twenge’s work was headlined “Today’s Teens More Anxious, Depressed, and Paranoid Than Ever.”
Twenge’s “narcissism epidemic” narrative fit perfectly with popular confusion and fears regarding social media, technology, reality TV stars, changes in parenting styles, the disintegration of 20th century social institutions, and the changing workforce. It also echoed popular criticism of the self-esteem movement, and the “participation trophy” fears that our cranky elders had already established about the generation then commonly called “Gen Y.”