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“Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” and “The Narcissism Epidemic”: How can we think about the evidence?

Jay Livingston points to this hypey article, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”, by Jean Twenge, who writes:

I’ve been researching generational differences for 25 years . . . Typically, the characteristics that come to define a generation appear gradually, and along a continuum. . . . [But] Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs, and many of the distinctive characteristics of the Millennial generation began to disappear. In all my analyses of generational data—some reaching back to the 1930s—I had never seen anything like it. . . .

At first I presumed these might be blips, but the trends persisted, across several years and a series of national surveys. The changes weren’t just in degree, but in kind. . . .

What happened in 2012 to cause such dramatic shifts in behavior? It was after the Great Recession, which officially lasted from 2007 to 2009 and had a starker effect on Millennials trying to find a place in a sputtering economy. But it was exactly the moment when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent. . . .

OK, interesting. But Livingston recalled he’d seen some mention of Twenge’s research before. Here’s Livingston, from 2016:

There it was again, the panic about the narcissism of millennials as evidenced by selfies. This time it was NPR’s podcast Hidden Brain. . . . The show’s host Shankar Vedantem chose to speak with only one researcher on the topic – psychologist Jean Twenge, whose even-handed and calm approach is clear from the titles of her books, Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic. She is obviously not alone in worrying about the narcissistic youth of America. In 2013, a Time Magazine cover on “The Me Me Me Generation” showed a millennialish woman taking a selfie. . . .

Twenge, in the Hidden Brain episode, uses individualism and narcissism as though they were interchangeable. She refers to her data on the increase in “individualistic” pronouns and language, even though linguists have shown this idea to be wrong (see Mark Liberman at Language log here and here). . . .

Then there’s the generational question. Are millennials more narcissistic than were their parents or grandparents? Just in case you’ve forgotten, that Time magazine cover was not the first one focused on “me.” In 1976, New York Magazine ran a similarly titled article by Tom Wolfe. . . . And maybe, if you’re old enough, when you read the title The Narcissism Epidemic, you heard a faint echo of a book by Christopher Lasch published thirty years earlier. . . .

Then Livingston brings in the data:

Since 1975, Monitoring the Future (here) has surveyed large samples of US youth. It wasn’t designed to measure narcissism, but it does include two relevant questions:

  • Compared with others your age around the country, how do you rate yourself on school ability?
  • How intelligent do you think you are compared with others your age?

It also has self-esteem items including

  • I take a positive attitude towards myself
  • On the whole, I am satisfied with myself
  • I feel I do not have much to be proud of (reverse scored)

A 2008 study compared 5-year age groupings and found absolutely no increase in “egotism” (those two “compared with others” questions). The millennials surveyed in 2001-2006 were almost identical to those surveyed twenty-five years earlier. The self-esteem questions too showed little change.

Another study by Brent Roberts, et al., tracked two sources for narcissism: data from Twenge’s own studies; and data from a meta-analysis that included other research, often with larger samples. The test of narcissism in all cases was the Narcissism Personality Inventory – 40 questions designed to tap narcissistic ideas.

A sample from a 16-item version of the Narcissitic Personality Inventory. Narcissistic responses are in boldface. (It’s hard to read these and not think of Donald Trump.)
1.    __ I really like to be the center of attention 
__ It makes me uncomfortable to be the center of attention

2.    __I am no better or nor worse than most people
__I think I am a special person

3.    __Everybody likes to hear my stories 
__Sometimes I tell good stories

5.    __I don’t mind following orders
__I like having authority over people

7.    __People sometimes believe what I tell them
__I can make anybody believe anything I want them to 

10.  __ I am much like everybody else
__  I am an extraordinary person 

13. __ Being an authority doesn’t mean that much to me
__People always seem to recognize my authority

14.  __ I know that I am good because everybody keeps telling    me so 
__When people compliment me I sometimes get embarrassed

16.  __ I am more capable than other people 
__There is a lot that I can learn from other people

Their results look like this:

Twenge’s sources justify her conclusion that narcissism is on the rise. But include the other data and you wonder if all the fuss about kids today is a bit overblown. You might not like participation trophies or selfie sticks or Instagram, but it does not seem likely that these have created an epidemic of narcissism.


Given all this, I’m skeptical about Twenge’s claims of big changes in 2012. I’d like to see the data, or, better still, given my own time constraints, to see the data analyzed by some independent source.

Why so negative?

At this point, you might ask: Why do I have to be so negative? Why reflexively disbelieve Twenge’s claims?

My answer: I’m not saying I disbelieve or that I think Twenge’s claims are wrong. I just don’t see that she’s provided convincing evidence for these claims.

I will say, though, that there’s something refreshing about an article saying that today’s kids are screwed up because they don’t have enough sex:

The topic is important

To put it another way, I write about this because I care; I share Twenge’s concern. If it’s really true that “the number of teens who get together with their friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2015,” that’s interesting. But I’d have to see it to believe it. And I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do with statements such as, “Those who spend an above-average amount of time with their friends in person are 20 percent less likely to say they’re unhappy than those who hang out for a below-average amount of time.” Also this: “three times as many 12-to-14-year-old girls killed themselves in 2015 as in 2007, compared with twice as many boys,” which is indeed a concern, but then I googled *teen suicide rates* and found this: “The rate of Americans ending their own lives has risen to its highest level in decades, according to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control, and the increase is especially pronounced among women. . . . The suicide rate increased for women of all ages, but the spike was especially pronounced for women aged 45-64. And although such incidents are comparatively rare, suicides of girls aged 10-14 increased 200% in that period, to 150 in 2014.” So, yes it’s a concern, but nothing particular about the younger generation.

There should be a way for researchers and journalists to float interesting hypotheses without feeling the need to act as if all their findings point in the same direction.


  1. Mark Samuel Tuttle says:

    Starting at the beginning of this century I spent a lot of time coaching youth sports. While I struggled sometimes to be a good coach, in my opinion the fallout of the self-esteem movement (SEM) made youth coaching very difficult. It may have made the PCA (Positive Coaching Alliance) necessary, because kids were so hard to coach. Anyway, I think the SEM made it difficult to communicate with the kids, and sometimes their parents, usefully. So, I would never under-estimate its effect, even though it may take decades of observation to sort it all out.

  2. gdanning says:

    “Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. … [2012} was exactly the moment when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent. . . .”

    I suppose her more scholarly work might address this, but why is the 50 percent threshold significant? Why not 45% or 55%? Unless she has some theory why passing the 50% threshold would trigger abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states, color me skeptical re her causal claim.

  3. Richard says:

    There are way too many easy answers for these complicated changes. Your suicide data raises a good point that frustrates me when people complain about millennials. Are 20 year olds today more egotistical than 20 year olds 30 years ago? Okay, fair question, show me the data. I would also like to see how egotistical those 50 year olds are today. Maybe millennials are just reaching their egotistical peak sooner than earlier generations.

  4. Gene Callahan says:

    It’s hilarious how deeply Trump is in your head!

  5. Ben Hanowell says:

    My pet hypothesis, likely untestable, is that people who reach a certain age become more likely to want to $%#& all over the younger generation when the youth get old enough to start criticizing them.

  6. Terry says:

    The Twenge article seems to be driven by simple censorship bias. The author wants a fretful piece about the negative effects of smartphones and gets this by bemoaning good things that have declined recently and bad things that have increased recently and by minimizing bad things that have declined or good things that have increased.

    Most centrally, the author bemoans the decline of in-person contact but downplays the benefits of the increase in online contact. I assume that the net effect is a significant increase in human contact, which is probably a good thing on net for teenagers. (It is certainly a very large net benefit to previously-isolated groups like rural youths, the elderly, and families spread out across the country.)

    Where possible, the author relates the trends to smartphones (often unconvincingly) and ignores other explanations. In a pinch, the author just draws a downward trend, adds a vertical line to show the introduction of the iPhone, and calls it a day.

    But the allure of independence, so powerful to previous generations, holds less sway over today’s teens, who are less likely to leave the house without their parents. The shift is stunning: 12th-graders in 2015 were going out less often than eighth-graders did as recently as 2009.

    Yes, but teenagers are interacting more online, mostly independent of parental supervision. What is the *net* effect on independence?

    Today’s teens are also less likely to date. The initial stage of courtship, which Gen Xers called “liking” (as in “Ooh, he likes you!”), kids now call “talking”—an ironic choice for a generation that prefers texting to actual conversation. After two teens have “talked” for a while, they might start dating. But only about 56 percent of high-school seniors in 2015 went out on dates; for Boomers and Gen Xers, the number was about 85 percent.

    “Dating” is apparently defined as in-person interaction, which is declining. But, “talking” has increased a lot. Sounds like the net effect is much wider interaction and more extensive screening before physical dating. Sounds like a good thing to me. You can avoid a lot of bad dates that way.

    ONE OF THE IRONIES of iGen life is that despite spending far more time under the same roof as their parents, today’s teens can hardly be said to be closer to their mothers and fathers than their predecessors were.

    So teens are *more* independent of their parents now? Earlier, the author bemoaned that teens were less independent. Which is it?

    The number of teens who get together with their friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2015; … The roller rink, the basketball court, the town pool, the local necking spot—they’ve all been replaced by virtual spaces accessed through apps and the web.

    So is this a net good or bad thing? Less in-person social contact in exchange for much more extensive online social contact. I’m guessing that is a net good thing.

    Teens are very focused on social interaction and I’m guessing they are choosing more online contact and less in-person contact because they feel they are getting more and better social interaction. I’m sure there are downsides to this trend, but it seems more likely that it is a net benefit. In any event, this article doesn’t prove it is a net bad thing.

  7. Mark Palko says:


    With pre-apologies in case I say something stupid (I only have a few minutes so I haven’t read the original articles), here are a few of my reasons to be skeptical, some of which are mentioned in your post and most of which we’ve hit before:

    1. The dangerous appeal of the Mono-causal. Lots of researchers and way too many journalists seem to think that science is like a bad mystery novel where the culprit has to be a character prominently introduced in the first couple of chapters.

    2. Bad proximity reasoning. This breaks down into extremes, both of which can be seen here.

    a. Causal arguments that don’t make much sense given the timing. Teenagers were permanently attached to their cell phones and remarkably proficient at texting on that tiny keyboard well before the introduction smart phones.

    b. Causal arguments that rely excessively on timing particularly when there are…

    3. Arbitrary cutoffs usually involving round numbers. There’s nothing magical about that 50% mark (especially since it’s of all Americans, not of all teenagers). Give me a choice of metrics AND a choice of thresholds and I can pretty much “prove” that any factor you want kicked in around any year you choose.

    4. The researcher seems exceptionally invested in finding ways to disapprove of those darn kids. Obviously, we are all guilty of approaching data with agendas now and then, but it’s still cause for, at the least, greater scrutiny.

    5. It’s a hype-tastic topic that’s headed up the trending charts with a bullet. Suddenly every god damn writer at every god damn news organization feels the need to comment on technology addiction, particularly with smart phones.

    6. It plays directly to cherished stereotypes about young people.

    7. Déjà vu all over again. I’ve been spending a lot of time recently digging into historical attitudes toward technology and I’m pretty sure I can find remarkably similar corruption-of-youth arguments being made every decade since the late 19th century.

    • Mark Palko says:

      Forgot one.

      Coexistence of mutually exclusive arguments to prove the same conclusion. Often in the same publications, you can find the argument that smart phones are bad because (as described here) they are making kids more isolated as indicated by less sexual activity and the argument that smart phones are bad because dating apps are creating a culture of promiscuity.

    • Peter Erwin says:

      I’m pretty sure I can find remarkably similar corruption-of-youth arguments being made every decade since the late 19th century.

      Absolutely! This bit of Economist commentary in the aftermath of the 2011 British riots has a fine time quoting from a 1982 book by Geoffrey Pearson (Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears), which traces such things back to the 17th Century. Among my favorites are the 1913 warning about how silent films will promote crime by children (“All who care for the moral well-being and education of the child will set their faces like flint against this new form of excitement”), preceded by the 1905 and 1900 warnings about the dangers of “music-hall programmes”. Also: “In London, 1815 sees the foundation of the Society for Investigating the Causes of the Alarming Increase in Juvenile Delinquency in the Metropolis”…

  8. Mark Palko says:

    And while I am in a ranting mood, can we please shut the hell up about “participation trophies.” Though the names and the (God help us all) acronyms have changed, the focus on children’s healthy self image and psychological welfare dates back at least to the early days of the postwar era. We are now looking at approximately 70 years of middle-aged people publicly voicing concerns over “today’s overprotected youth.”

  9. Marcus says:

    I wonder how much of this can simply be explained by rising levels of random responding to surveys due to the increased use of online platforms for administrations of surveys. Someone responding randomly to these types of questions will look awfully narcissistic relative to people who are actually paying attention and it does not take many random responders to raise the mean by what appears to be a relatively modest amount (d=.30).

  10. DJ says:

    The Behavioral Scientist had a pretty even-handed survey of the research and narratives around our use of social media in the special issue, “Connected State of Mind.”

    In sum: we need more high-quality research, and the early findings (with research like that above) are following the traditional technological change alarmism. They should be read with much warranted skepticism. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything going on here, but just that we need to let good science take its course.

  11. Carlos Ungil says:

    > So, yes it’s a concern, but nothing particular about the younger generation.

    The relative increase is noticeable larger in young girls, that seems “something particular”:

    Going from 50 to 150 girls in the 10-14 age group killing themselves every year is cannot explained just by statistical noise. Maybe suicide in that group was particularly underreported, maybe there is some actual increase for some reason. But it seems worth looking at, even if the don’t kill themselves yet as often as middle aged women do.

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