The U.S. Military Academy hosted Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego University, Jan. 31 as part of its Modern War Institute speaker series.
Twenge studies generations and the changes that occur between them. She spoke to cadets in the Class of 2020 about the challenges they face as members of what she has deemed iGen, because they are the first generation to grow up in the age of the smartphone.
Twenge's research on generations is based on a survey, which has been given over a series of decades. The survey has a total pool of more than 11 million respondents capturing different generations in their adolescence.
Twenge said the data shows a precipitous drop in the 2011-12 timeframe in the happiness of members of iGen compared to previous generations at their age. The drop corresponds to the time when smartphones reached market saturation. There was also a spike in reported depression symptoms and suicide attempts among iGen members around the same time, she said.
While the correlation between the changes and smartphone usage are not definitive, Twenge said the research shows a connection between people with more reported mental health issues and those who spend more time on smartphones.
"So many other causes of mental health issues and depression or happiness are out of our control," she said. "We can't control the genes we are born with. We can't control the bad stuff that happened to us in the past. But we can control what we do with our free time. We can think more mindfully about how we use that time. So, we can talk in person instead. That's good for mental health. It is also good for social skills."
Twenge's lecture continues an emphasis on mental health awareness at the academy. Last month, West Point held an honorable living stand down day in part to discuss mental health topics and how cadets can work to build cohesive teams.
More sleep is Twenge's number one solution for combatting mental health issues in members of iGen. Her recommendation is to take technology out of the sleeping area. This includes not using your cellphone for an hour before bedtime and putting it away from where you are sleeping such as in a bag.
"We don't have to give up our technology," Twenge said. "Technology is great. It does many wonderful things for us. We just have to think about how we use it. One way to do that is to try to break the addiction that a lot of people feel around their phones."
Although the social media apps that take up so much of people's time are free, the hidden costs come from the time users spend looking at their phone, Twenge said calling it the "attention economy." Users then in turn pay for the apps with their mental health, Twenge's research shows.
"I think the most important thing is sparking conversation between cadets on things we may not be aware of," Class of 2020 Cadet Damaria Morton said of the lecture. "You look at your screen time on your phone, and you see you spent like 20 hours a week or so on it. That's a lot of time you could have been spending doing something else like interacting with your classmates or things like that. I think it is just bringing awareness to us to know we're doing that."
Twenge's lecture was one in a series taking place throughout the semester to help educate and inspire cadets. Upcoming speakers include a World War II veteran who will be speaking about combat, a book author speaking about the 21st century battlefield and a double-amputee veteran speaking about resilience.