Have Headphones Made Gen Z More Insular?

Gen Z kids spend an average of four hours a day listening to audio with headphones. Watching my children consume their music with plugs stuffed in their ears, I wonder if we're all missing out on opportunities to engage.
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Gen Z Development CASBS

I was a devoted Barry Manilow fan as an adolescent in the mid-1970s, an affinity that dismayed even my rather conventional middle-aged parents.

I especially liked the track "I Write the Songs" on Manilow's album Tryin' to Get the Feeling. I knew all the words by heart. So did my parents and siblings, because I played the album constantly on the stereo in our family room. My father groused about the uninspired album art, but what really piqued him was the arrogance and presumption of Manilow lustily singing "I am music, and I write the songs!" He'd get really exercised about it, which amused my brother, sister, and me in the perverse way that seeing parents coming unglued can do.

My parents knew my musical tastes because they heard what I played, saw my albums and cassettes lying around, and drove me to Harmony House in suburban Detroit to dig through record bins. What my Generation Z children listen to is more of a mystery. Born in the mid-1990s to mid-2000s, Gen Z kids love music, and 85 percent of them say it's an important part of their lives. But unlike my generation, they don't have to share their listening experiences. They can sit alone with their computer or smartphone and listen or watch privately using headphones, much as they consume most of their media.

Gen Z kids spend an average of four hours a day listening to audio with headphones. One in seven spends 10 hours a day, and some spend more time than that. As a parent, I can feel vaguely unsettled watching my children, ears capped shut, withdrawn from the ambient sounds of the world. Alone in their heads for hours on end, sealed off from one another and from me, their separateness and disconnection make me think of what David Foster Wallace, the great chronicler of solipsism, described in one of his short stories as "ghastly intuitions of utter singularity."

In 1984, two days into his freshman year at a big university, my brother was cranking Mӧtley Crüe's "Shout at the Devil" in his dorm room. A fellow freshman on a nearby floor heard the siren song, followed the music to my brother's open door, stuck his head in, and said: "Dude! You like metal?"

Rock and roll. By the next weekend they were at Joe Louis Arena for a Ratt show during the band's Invasion of Your Privacy tour. Thirty years later, the two are still close friends.

When I visit my daughter at college, I'm struck by the quiet dormitories. I've yet to hear music pumping from windows and doorways as in my college days, when following a thumping bass could be a reliable way to find a party. My kids claim that doesn't happen because playing music over speakers where people haven't agreed to listen is considered intrusive and rude.

Headphones help to avoid the annoyance of unwanted sound. They let us be deeply immersed and alone in our own heads with a soundtrack, which can be an intensely blissful and rapturous experience. Researchers have found that listening alone can amplify emotions, both happy and sad. Listening over headphones is frictionless, socially speaking, and can offer a sense of privacy in a public space.

Privacy is important, especially for kids learning to establish boundaries, independence, and identity. That said, watching my children consume their music with plugs stuffed in their ears, I wonder if we're all missing out on opportunities to engage, share interests, learn to tolerate and negotiate differences, or just socialize with one another in the ways music naturally encourages. Dances at my kids' high school are poorly attended, in part, students claim, because it's hard to find music everyone likes. Perhaps relatedly, surveys suggest that Gen Z kids prefer to work alone in their own space, rather than in groups or collaboratively.

Headphones' contribution to social disconnection and alienation has been discussed and fretted over since the Sony Walkman appeared in the late 1970s. Improved technology has raised other concerns about how the intensely immersive experience that headphones and earbuds provide can lead people to disengage from physical environments and become vulnerable to injury or crime. But what about the emotional and psychological implications of what it might mean to unplug from one another?

Social scientist Jean Twenge reports that the number of teens who spend time with friends on a daily basis dropped by 40 percent between 2000 and 2015. Recent studies describe Gen Z as "the loneliest generation," claiming that members of that cohort report more feelings of isolation and loneliness than any other demographic group. Is it such a big leap to think that all the time spent alone with headphones—doing things by themselves that could otherwise be social, like listening to music—might contribute to this sense of disconnection?

My children insist that how they experience, discover, and share music isn't so different from how I did at their age. I'm not convinced. Music has always contributed to, and helped to delineate, the generation gaps between parents and children. But in decades past, those gaps mainly involved disagreements over changing musical styles, social mores, and nostalgic attachment. For Gen Z, the vast digital music universe and the ability to live in it secretly and silently is all they've ever known. My kids were born into a changed world. I'm still struggling through the transition.

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Understanding Gen Z, a collaboration between Pacific Standard and Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, investigates the historical context and social science research that helps explain the next generation. Join our newsletter to see new stories, and let us know your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Understanding Gen Z was made possible by Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) and its director, Margaret Levi, who hosted the iGen Project. Further support came from the Knight Foundation.

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