It has become common in the past ten years to see everyday opportunities for interaction with family and friends forsaken in favor of “screen time.” Whether eating at restaurants, waiting in the car for the light to change, or watching kids at a playground, everyday events, however trivial, have become bookends for incessant use of electronic devices. Researchers are beginning to discover concerning behaviors associated with this behavior, especially for the demographic labeled the “iGen” (a name derived from their ever present iPhones).
The Marine Corps had a collective discussion about the dark side of social media in the wake of 2017’s Marines United scandal. As leaders, however, we cannot be satisfied with a one-time conversation. Thinking about social media must be considered an enduring task, a continuous conversation that includes not only what Marines post online but also how social media is consumed.
The name iGen is not synonymous with “millennials,” who remember a time before the smartphone. Some 88,000 Marines between the ages of 18 and 24 years old—almost half of the active-component force—qualify as members of iGen. Born between 1995 and 2012, iGenners have only known an ever-present online community of wireless devices and social media. Generational differences go beyond age. Studies indicate that iGen have experienced an alarming rise in feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and depression. In 2011, national screening studies reported a 50 percent increase in clinical depression among older teenagers. That year also marked the first time in 24 years that the teenage suicide rate was higher than the homicide rate. Hospitals have reported a doubling in the number of children and teenagers hospitalized for suicidal thoughts and self-harm. And while social media cannot be directly blamed as a causal factor in teenage depression and suicide, research indicates an unmistakable correlation between screen time and reported symptoms of depression. The Marine Corps reported 57 cases of confirmed and suspected suicides in 2018, a 10-year high.
It is not without irony that social media—where momentary thoughts, activities, interests, and are shared with friends—ultimately results in an increasing sense of loneliness. Researchers have found that iGenners do not get together with friends in the same way teenagers used to, with the number of daily get-togethers dropping by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2015. Instead of going to the mall or looking for parties—the things most of this article’s readers likely did as teens—members of iGen are increasingly spending time alone, thumbing through social media.
Today’s junior Marines likewise spend a great deal of time on social media. Stationed in remote locations thousands of miles from home, engrossed in a new, overwhelming military culture, iGen Marines rely on Facebook and Instagram to keep in touch with friends and family back home.
Consider, however, the unavoidable anxiety that comes with social media. In vivid detail, iGen Marines are continually reminded of the many things going on back home without them. One Marine might watch a livestream of his former football team running onto field to celebrate a win over their crosstown rival. Another’s visit to her chow hall becomes considerably less appealing after seeing her kid sister’s Friday night “foodstagram” of Mom’s special enchiladas.
As leaders of iGen Marines, we must pursue a basic task: Get Marines to spend less time on their phones. This might sound challenging and even anachronistic. But, using equal parts creativity and enthusiasm, it may be easier than it seems.
Don’t Quit Cold Turkey
To reduce the risks of secondhand smoke, most businesses and military commands have established designated smoking areas. Why not implement a similar mitigation technique for smartphones? Marines are allowed to take “smoke breaks;” how about a “smartphone break”? Challenge Marines to leave their phones in a designated area when they come to work; Marines assigned to commands with secure facilities are already in the habit. Leaders who want not to be known as Luddites could cloak their intent under the pretext of “cybersecurity” (which, come to think of it, is not too far from the truth).
Make it fun. Give the smartphone storage box a funny name—call it the “smartphone booth” (after explaining what a phone booth is). Tape a picture of a parking meter on the box. Anyone unable to resist the urge to check their phone could be equitably awarded trivial, non-punitive penalties: loose-change donation towards a unit event, push-ups, or essay assignments on Marine Corps history. Marines love a challenge—if messaged properly, they will buy in.
Tear Down That Wall
The increasingly fragmented and lonely character of garrison workplaces erodes unit cohesion and camaraderie. Marines don’t go to the break room anymore because they don’t have to—their phones have replaced the need to catch up on news once provided by communal televisions. Unit leaders who care for the health and welfare of those assigned to their command must to more to counteract the costly, unintentional effects of iGen culture.
Instead of offices reflecting an industrial era organizational hierarchy, the Corps should create workspaces that encourage Marines of all ranks to leave their desks, creating the vital “serendipitous personal encounters” that innovators such as Steve Jobs considered vital to idea formulation and transmission.
Create Analog Engagement
When Marines visit the head, their phones go with them. Why not give them a means for wireless engagement? “Stall wall” note boards, otherwise known as infographics, are a noticeably underused means for Marines to interact with something other than phones—which, like it or not, they will do in the head. Creating a good infographic, one which presents complex information in a digestible format, is not easy. Then again, no one ever said that crisis responses was anything but an exceedingly complex endeavor. Making sure Marines can withstand the mental rigor of three-block wars is our responsibility as leaders; creating infographics is one way, however minor, to prepare them for this challenge.
Again, make it fun. Infographics provide Marines an opportunity to learn about a range of interesting or irrelevant topics. On a rotating basis, sections could develop infographics about a topic of their choice—spotting riptides at the beach, cooking an authentic crawfish boil, or implementation of service limits for Sergeants. Infographics should be about what Marines wants to know about. Make it competitive. Leaders could recognize the most engaging infographic through a homemade awards program, granting sections that produce the best infographic with an early start to their weekend.
Leaders who’d rather not interrupt Marines as they answer nature’s call could hang an “On this date” history board. Such a board would make arcane subjects more relatable—a much needed benefit for a field of study that’s been described as increasingly parochial to those who don’t consider themselves “history buffs.”
Maximize Non-Digital Engagement
Liberty formations. Marines hate them, but the liberty formation does represent an opportunity for Marines to interact with their unit commanders or section heads. It is remarkable to see weekly formations devolve into a haphazard review of mundane dangers Marines may encounter over the weekend‚ alcohol, off limits locations, and unprotected sex, to name just a few—that have been discussed ad nauseam throughout their careers.
Leaders must view weekly liberty briefs as an opportunity to deliver a powerful, optimistic vision to their command and prepare accordingly. Instead of Charlie Brown’s teacher hijacking the formation to drone on about the “do’s and don’ts” of the next 24 to 48 hours, Marines could walk their audience through real world vignettes about heeding the guidance of self-anointed barracks day traders. Social media is rarely discussed; given the risks it represents, this seems an overlooked topic.
Commanders could employ a “directed telescope”—what the corporate world calls “secret shoppers”—to identify who is providing the most inspiring liberty briefs. Encourage adjacent commands to share topics and methods of delivery.
Getting iGen Marines to put down their phones and unplug from social media may appear to be a daunting task. The ideas posed here pertain to the workplace, and may therefore be seen as failing to address the larger issue—how to introduce face-to-face interaction in Marines’ off-duty hours and locations.
Leaders can certainly take steps to ensure the health and welfare of their iGen Marines is a foremost concern in the workplace. It runs the risk of leaders appearing alarmist and sentimental—Rockwellian dinosaurs who do not understand how these kids today communicate with each other. So be it.
Given this generation’s increasing feelings of loneliness, rising suicide rates, and clinical depression, the Marine Corps must renew its conversation about social media, talking not only about how the Corps expects them to use social media, but also how much. It should be considered the responsibility of leaders at every level to encourage Marines to journey the road less traveled—creating ways for them to interact outside of social media, even if just during their workday hours, for they may find it makes all the difference.