I’m speechless. What can be added to such disheartening piece, except to place the responsibility for the creation of such a generation to where it belongs — to the parents of these maladjusted misfits who will someday be lead our nation. OMG!
The Smartphone Generation vs. Free Speech
Controversial speakers are being shut down on campus because today’s college students are obsessed with psychological safety and have little experience with negotiating conflicts
Jean M. Twenge
A student group set up a ‘safe space’ on the University of Missouri campus, Columbia, Mo., Nov. 8, 2015. PHOTO: JAIME KEDROWSKI/MISSOURIAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS
In the past few years, many U.S. college campuses have become embroiled in controversies over free speech. Students have insisted on “safe spaces” to protect themselves from ideas with which they disagree and have demanded the dismissal of faculty members who offend their sensibilities. Campus speakers have been “disinvited” when students object to their point of view. Such events were rare just five years ago but now seem to occur constantly during the school year. Why has this happened? What is so different about today’s students that many of them denounce faculty and administrators who suggest that a basic expectation of university life is for people with differing perspectives to talk to each other?
Meet iGen, the generation of young Americans born after 1995 and the first to spend their entire adolescence with smartphones in their hands. Puzzling as the recent campus controversies might seem, they are rooted in the unique psychology and life experiences of this cohort.
First, iGen’ers grew up in an era of smaller families and protective parenting. They rode in car seats until they were in middle school, bounced on soft-surface playgrounds and rarely walked home from school. For them, unsurprisingly, safety remains a priority, even into early adulthood.
As I found in analyzing several large national surveys of teens from all backgrounds, fewer of them in the 2010s (as compared with the 2000s) say that they like to take risks, and fewer say they get a thrill out of doing something dangerous. That has real benefits. Fewer get into car accidents or physical fights. In the annual Monitoring the Future survey of more than a half million 12th-graders, the number who binge-drank was cut in half between the late 1990s and 2016. In previous eras, teens were willing to live on the edge by doing things they knew weren’t safe—that was the nature of being a teen. Not anymore.
Teenagers using cellphones. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Nor are they just concerned about physical safety. The iGen teens I have interviewed also speak of their need for “emotional safety”—which, they say, can be more difficult to protect. “I believe nobody can guarantee emotional safety,” one 19-year-old told me. “You can always take precautions for someone hurting you physically, but you cannot really help but listen when someone is talking to you.” This is a distinctively iGen idea: that the world is an inherently dangerous place because every social interaction carries the risk of being hurt. You never know what someone is going to say, and there’s no way to protect yourself from it.
The result is a generation whose members are often afraid to talk to one another, especially about anything that might be upsetting or offensive. If everyone must be emotionally safe at all times, a free discussion of ideas is inherently dangerous. Opposing viewpoints can’t just be argued against; they have to be shut down, because merely hearing them can cause harm.
‘This frame of mind lies behind recent student agitation to keep controversial speakers off campus.’
This frame of mind lies behind recent student agitation to keep controversial speakers off campus. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit watchdog group, campus disinvitations have risen steadily, reaching an all-time high of 42 in 2016, up from just six in 2000. In the American Freshman survey of more than 140,000 college students conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute in 2015, 43% agreed that campuses should be able to ban extreme speakers, up from just 20% in 1984.
The reasons for disinvitations frequently refer to the safety of students. When Williams College disinvited a speaker with provocative views on race, the campus newspaper wrote that his presence on campus would have caused students “emotional injury.” When controversial speakers do come, it is now fashionable to create a “safe space” where students can go if they feel upset.
Members of iGen are also taking longer to grow up. As I found in analyzing seven large national surveys of teens, today’s adolescents are less likely to drive, drink, work, date, go out and have sex than were teens just 10 years ago. Today’s 18-year-olds look like 15-year-olds used to. They don’t reach adulthood too early, but they also lack experience with independence and decision-making.
The result is a generation that looks to college administrators to settle disputes, like squabbling siblings appealing to their parents. Unaccustomed to independence, they want an authority figure to step in. At San Diego State University in 2016, students wanted the university president to apologize for fliers posted by an off-campus group. At Yale University in 2015, a faculty member suggested that students use their own judgment about potentially offensive Halloween costumes rather than let the administration dictate the rules. The students demanded that she resign.
Campus as a “home,” evoking the protected cocoon of childhood, is a theme in many of these incidents. During the controversy at Yale, a student yelled, “It is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students…It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! It is about creating a home here!”
Members of iGen have spent more time with screens and less time interacting with each other in person than any previous generation. Because they communicate primarily online, most of the threats they experience come through social media or texts, not in person. For iGen, danger tends to take the form of words, not physical altercations. At the extreme, this has led to the belief that words can be violence—the belief at the core of disinvitations, “trigger warnings” to alert students to potentially offensive material, and campus speech restrictions. In the American Freshman survey, iGen college students were more likely than Gen X students in the 1990s to agree that “colleges should prohibit racist or sexist speech.”
Finally, in a time of growing income inequality, iGen believes that you either make it or you don’t—so you’d better make it. Compared with previous generations, they are more likely to say that they are going to college to get a good job and less likely to say that they hope the experience will broaden their education and point of view.
To faculty and administrators who grew up in previous eras, college is a place for being challenged by new ideas. Members of iGen disagree: They see college as a place to prepare for a career in a safe environment. They don’t necessarily see a connection between participating in big social and political debates and getting a job that pays well.
All of these iGen factors have combined to create a perfect storm at U.S. colleges. It isn’t hard to see why these young people, looking for safety and practicality, now clash so regularly with their elders when controversial ideas arrive on campus.
—Dr. Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the author of “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood” (Atria).
Appeared in the September 2, 2017, print edition as ‘The Smartphone Generation Vs. Free Speech.’