The State of Students Today: An Interview with Dr. Jean Twenge
Recently I had the honor and privilege to talk with Dr. Jean Twenge on the Growing Leaders podcast. She is is a widely published professor of psychology at San Diego State University, the author of Generation Me, and the co-author ofThe Narcissism Epidemic. Her research has been featured or quoted in Time, USA Today,New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major media. She has appeared on Today, Good Morning America, Dateline, and National Public Radio.
Here are a few notes from our discussion on the state of today’s students:
Talk about what you do, in addition to your teaching Psychology at San Diego State University. You’ve been a part of some time lag studies of students that have been going on for years now. Tell us about that.
Since graduate school, I’ve been very interested in gender roles, and had noticed that women’s gender roles had been different than they were a generation or two before. So there have been a few types of studies that I’ve been a part of. One has us looking at the average scores of children or college students on different psychological scales, and with that, we’ve been able to trace some psychological traits all the way back to the 1930s. Another has us looking at studies of high school students and freshman entering into college that go back to the 50s and 60s. They give a pretty long view of generational change.
What are some of the big picture observations and conclusions about students that have lead to you writing books like Generation Me?
We call the book Generation Me because if you really look at generational changes, they’re rooted in the changes in our culture. And when you look at how our culture has changed, particularly since the 1970s, the one thing that keeps coming up over and over again is individualism. There’s been more focus on the self, and less focus on social rules and other people. That’s where the book title came from. So the first studies we did were looking at self-esteem and positive self-views, and then a few years into it, we began to find more extreme forms of individualism, such as narcissism, that had increased over the generations. So while there were positive changes, such as the increase in self-esteem, it appears that sometimes, those positive views and self-esteem are not rooted in reality, and that’s where I believe a lot of the problems in this generation exist.
You just finished a study showing that teens today are displaying more psychosomatic symptoms of depression, like trouble sleeping and remembering. Would you touch on this?
This came from a high school survey for 12th graders going back to 1976, and from that time until now, more and more teens are saying I have trouble sleeping, concentrating, and remembering. These can often be psychosomatic symptoms of depression. But what’s interesting is if you asked them directly, “Are you depressed?” there’s no change in that number since the 80s. This could be because antidepressants came on the market in the early 90s, so maybe the people with the most severe issues are getting the help they need. But we have more teens than ever saying they have these low-level symptoms of depression, and that’s very worrisome.
Are your concerns for the mental health of students growing, and if so, why?
There are both good and bad signs in this area. It is extremely encouraging that the teen suicide rate is down, but just talking with people, they talk about how stressed they are. And sure enough, today’s college students say they feel more overstressed than ever. Stress is a word they use a lot.
94% of college students say the number one word they use to describe their life is overwhelmed. Is there more stress than when our generation was growing up, or coping mechanisms different?
Well for one thing, as we get older, I think we forget just how stressful it is to be young. So we need to take a step back and see that perspective. Uncertainty can be really stressful, and it could be that this generation doesn’t have the resources to cope with some of the smaller bumps in life.
You’ve also reported that trust is at an all-time low among young adults in America. What does this mean for those of us who lead them?
Between the 1970s and the present, people are much less likely to say they trust other people. This is very worrisome. Political scientists talk about trust being the foundation of “social capital,” and when social capital decreases, our economy can break down. So we all need to work together, and we need this foundation of trust to do so.
For the educators, parents, and youth workers who are listening, what are some ways that we can lead students into more healthy lifestyles?
The first thing is to move away from this culture movement of boosting self-esteem, empty praise, and giving a trophy for showing up. High self-esteem is not linked to success in life. Perseverance, self-control, hard work, and having realistic view of your own ability, coupled with self-confidence, leads to success.
Any other thoughts or practical insights on affirming in a realistic way?
It’s all about balancing what this generation wants with what they need. For example, they want videos or visuals in lectures and discussions, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It leads to learning, and they like it. Be friendly and encourage them to ask questions. But sometimes, the mindset that works the best is imagining I am their manager five years from now. This helps them understand that there are some standards that they have to follow in life.
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