Today’s Youth: Super Connected yet Completely Disconnected

Avi Muschel, PsyD

Yeshiva University Counseling Center, NYC                                   DrMuschel@gmail.com

Let’s start with a game: Which of the following statements about today’s youth (people born after 1995) is false?

• Today’s teenagers and young adults are starting to have sex at younger ages than teenagers and young adults of previous generations.

• Today’s teenagers and young adults engage with more sexual partners than members of previous generations did.

• Most of today’s teenagers and young adults do not want to be in emotionally connected relationships.

Think of your answer (even say it out loud to avoid cheating), and hold onto it for a moment.

Considering that I spend most of my waking hours at a college counseling center, with students born in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a book written exclusively about this age group seemed like a must-read. And so I was excited to come across “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood” by San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge. Twenge’s volume is fairly enlightening not only in helping understand the issues unique to this post-Millennial generation she refers to as “iGen’ers,” but in providing context for these issues. Twenge is careful to highlight that the unique characteristics of this generation are neither inherently positive nor negative; rather, they have positive and negative features.

As a general theme, she consistently finds tremendous importance given to two key components in the lives of many iGen’ers: safety and individualism. For our purposes, we will only explore and expound upon these two features as they relate to my personal area of expertise, relationships.

Twenge begins her chapter about relationships by dismissing all three of the statements I listed at the beginning of this essay as myths. As it turns out, today’s youths are less sexually active than their parents or grandparents were at their age. Similarly, although the media typically highlights the frequency and widespread nature of the casual “hookup culture,” not only is the hooking up not as pervasive as is often reported, but more importantly, despite the culture, most teens and young adults still desperately seek emotional connection. So why can’t they find it?

Individuality vs Relationships

The importance of individualism is a prominent part of growing up today, for better and for worse. Politically, for example, this emphasis on individual autonomy has manifested through unprecedented activism in support of tolerance toward any and every kind of minority in America and across the world. One clear downside of this individuality, which directly impacts relationships, is the resulting belief that relationships negatively impact one’s individuality. More and more iGen’ers report avoiding relationships out of the fear that it will ruin their ability to grow individually. While many members of the previous generation either ignored their own individuality for the sake of a relationship, or considered their relationships as a part of their identity, kids growing up today consider relationships a “distraction,” which “hold you back from your true potential.”

At the counseling center, I have heard many students describe their lack of time for relationships. Students have insisted to me that they need to “work on themselves” or “find themselves” first before they are ready for a relationship. Jack, a 23-year-old college student, told me that he “hit it off” with a girl he met at a recent event, but decided not to pursue the relationship in order to take time away from relationships and figure out his own life path first.

What I’m also seeing concurrently is the feeling of guilt or confusion students experience over their feeling bad about a breakup. Rachel, a 25-year-old graduate student, had broken up with her boyfriend of four years, and was struggling to move on, often catching glimpses of his Facebook page to see pictures of his newest girlfriend. “I consider myself a feminist and it doesn’t make sense that I need a man to be happy, but then why do I care about him so much?” she asked me. “I don’t know. Maybe because you’re a person, and you went out with him for years and you really loved each other,” was my empathic reply, a not-so-subtle attempt to help her appreciate her humanness in seeking, and missing, a romantic relationship.

She, like many others her age, struggle to appreciate that it is appropriate in life, even as a feminist, to rely on others for emotional support. Several decades ago, John Bowlby made famous what we now all intuitively believe: a child needs love and emotional support, what he called “attachment,” to thrive in life. Sue Johnson, the world-renowned marriage therapist and developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy, simply extended Bowlby’s discoveries about children and applied them to adults. As it turns out, people don’t grow out of their innate need for others. iGen’ers’ desire for individual autonomy is praiseworthy; their belief that emotional relationships hijack this autonomy is perilous.

Pursuit of Safety

The second prominent feature of today’s youth is their emphasis on safety. Aside from physical safety, which has fortunately led to reduced rates of teen pregnancies and STDs, iGen’ers also fear emotional pain, an unfortunate but natural byproduct of life and development. This fear is understandable–no one wants to experience pain–however, like their attempts at achieving individuality, iGen’ers pursuit of safety is not without cost.

Stress Therapy

The easiest way to understand the fallacy in avoiding emotional pain is through a basic comparison to physical pain. Nobody wants to have the flu, but to increase the likelihood of avoiding the actual flu, most healthy people receive an injection of a small amount of the flu in a vaccine, to help protect the body against stronger versions of the flu in the future. This idea is as true in mental health as it is in physical health. In fact, certain psychology techniques, such as stress inoculation therapy and attitude inoculation, demonstrate the notion that exposing a person to small doses of something negative can be helpful in the long-term. The same is true with emotional pain. Experiencing rejection or other frustrations in emotional relationships can feel devastating, but completely avoiding those feelings hurts a person even more in the long-term. Pain is inevitable, but experiencing some pain throughout life helps develop the very “immune system” that helps cure the pain a person will continually face.

This, too, is a challenge that presents all too often at our counseling center. One student I worked with for a long time, Nancy, told me about how she would always have “emergency exits” in her relationships to protect herself from any form of rejection. If a boy she dated would show any sign of not being interested in her, even for a minute, she would immediately “escape” the relationship and avoid feeling rejected. As she explained so elegantly, before he can dump her, she would dump him.

Another student, Brian, related to me that relationships are challenging because of the inherent requirement to make himself vulnerable. He realized that he even struggled to make eye contact with the girls he dated, as well as with me, his therapist, lest he become too vulnerable and allow someone to see into his eyes and into his soul.

As Twenge explains, iGen’ers believe ‘tis better to never have loved at all, than to have loved and lost. Like with their pursuit of individuality, iGen’ers understandably seek to avoid pain, and often make good choices as a result, but their firm insistence on avoidance of any pain paradoxically hurts them more than it helps.

Contrary to the way they are portrayed in popular television shows, kids, teens, and young adults of the current generation are not stupid, lazy, or bad. They are, like every generation, endowed with their own unique strengths and weaknesses that are a product of parenting styles and the culture around them. The best way to help them thrive in life is to understand their unique traits, namely their focus on individuality and safety, and help foster positive growth as a result.

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