Members of the Echo Generation or Echo Boomers – those born roughly between 1982 and 1995 – have been called by a number of names. They’re the Net Generation, Generation Y, Generation Next, Millennials, even the Peter Pan Generation, among other monikers. They are the offspring of the Boomer Generation, hence, the name. Today, they number 80 million strong – and they’re a considerable force in American society.
But how addicted are they? Do they tend to gravitate toward the same types of substance abuse or process addictions as previous generations? What do we really know about this hugely important segment of our population with respect to their habits, tolerances, and prognosis?
The answers may surprise you.
Addicted to Connectivity
The Echo Generation is the first to grow up with computers in the homes. In an age of 500-channel TV viewing, the Echos are multi-taskers who juggle cell phone use, texting, and Internet surfing with the ease that boggles the mind of many of their parents – even those who were early-adopters of the Internet.
To the Gen-Y individual today, land lines are a thing of the past. Most only have a cell phone and they are slavishly tethered to it for instant messaging, texting, and sharing photos and surfing the Web. They are, in effect, totally plugged in – in a worldwide community.
It’s hard to get a true picture of the scope of this group’s addiction to connectivity devices, but some statistics do point to some alarming trends.
While restrictions against use of cell phones and texting while driving have been enacted in 30 states, this hasn’t stopped drivers of all ages from continuing their usage. Even hands-free phones are an example of “distracted driving” that causes vehicle crashes.
A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and affiliated Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) found that texting bans did not reduce vehicle crashes. In fact, texting actually increased in three of four states in the study (California, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Washington) after texting was banned.
The study found that young drivers (those under age 25) are more likely than older people to text while driving. The largest increase in crashes (12 percent) in the four states studied occurred in California following the text ban on drivers.
Young drivers, the ones most likely to text, shrug off the bans. Instead of curbing texting, they hold the cellphone in their laps and avert their eyes from the road. They know what they’re doing is wrong, but they are unable or unwilling to change their behavior. This is classic addiction, in that behavior is continued despite mounting negative consequences.
Consider the facts: Texting in general is on the increase. Wireless phone subscriptions were 286 million (in December 2009), up 47 percent from 194 million in June 2005. Text messaging went up by 60 percent in a single year, from 1 trillion text messages in 2008 to 1.6 trillion in 2009.
Alcohol: The Drug of Choice Among Young People
As far as substances, alcohol is the drug of choice among young people, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Results from the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health are even more instructive. In 2009, according to survey data, 10.4 million persons (aged 12 to 20) reported drinking in the past month. About 6.9 million were binge drinkers (consuming five or more drinks on a single occasion), and 2.1 million were heavy drinkers.
Research shows that the younger a person starts using alcohol, the more likely he or she will be to have a problem with substances as they mature. Most research cites drinking prior to the age of 15 as a predictor of future problems with substance use and abuse.
Other Drugs Used by Young People
Underage drinkers were more likely than persons aged 21 and older to use illicit drugs within two hours after consuming alcohol (17.5 percent versus 5.0 percent, respectively). The most common illicit drug used within two hours of drinking alcohol by this group was marijuana, used by 16.9 percent (1.7 million persons).
The 2009 NSDUH reports that young adults aged 18 to 25 had the highest rate of current use of a tobacco product (41.6 percent) compared with youths aged 12 to 17 and adults aged 26 and older (11.6 and 27.3 percent, respectively).
Of the 23.5 million persons aged 12 or older who needed treatment in 2009, only 2.6 million received treatment at a specialty facility. That left 20.9 million persons who needed treatment but did not get it at a specialty facility. Substances for which individuals received treatment during the past year include, in descending order, alcohol (2.9 million), marijuana (1.24 million), cocaine (787,000), pain relievers (739,000), stimulants (517,000), heroin (507,000), hallucinogens (443,000), and tranquilizers (421,000).
The number and percentage of youths (aged 12 to 17) who needed treatment for an illicit drug or alcohol use problem remained unchanged between 2008 (1.9 million, or 7.8 percent) and 2009 (1.8 million, or 7.2 percent).
Traits of Echo Generation
When looking at the tendency (or not) of members of the Echo Generation to become addicted, it’s interesting to look at some of their personality traits. Having grown up essentially in an Internet world, these young people are used to instant gratification. They have high expectations for themselves, are overachievers, over managed, and feel a great deal of pressure. They have also been heavily programmed from an early age by their Boomer Generation parents who have taken them off for Gymboree dates, soccer practice, and other structured activities.
As a result, these Echo Boomers expect to be immediately rewarded for their efforts, want to be noticed, and want a lot of instant feedback – like their insatiable desire to reply to text messaging. But often this doesn’t translate into the real world of jobs and family and other responsibilities.
Employers complain that some younger employees can’t think long-term. They want everything now, aren’t forward-thinkers, and can’t delay gratification in pursuit of long-term goals.
On the other side of the personality trait equation, Echo Boomers are a much more tolerant and inclusive generation, believing in equal rights for all. They tend to live with their parents longer, delay accepting responsibility longer, and tend to live for the moment.
What does this say about the addictive potential of the Echo Generation? In essence, while they are prone to deficits in attention, seeking instant gratification (in communication and in expectation for reward), they may be no more likely than earlier generations to gravitate toward use and abuse of substances or other addictive behavior.
The research holds true for this generation as it has for others. The earlier the age of initiation into consumption of alcohol or use of other illicit drugs, the more likely that problems with substance abuse and addiction will occur later in life.
The rub is, as they say, that there are so many of the Echo Generation. At 80 million, they’re a huge part of society and will shape our world for decades to come. What does it say about our future if the leaders of tomorrow are only concerned with what happens in the moment? How will they deal with mounting stress that inevitably accompanies increased
responsibility? Will they turn to anesthetizing themselves with alcohol and drugs? Will they be persuaded that substance abuse is not in society’s best interest? Will they push for more treatment and prevention services and/or avail themselves of recovery support services?
Addiction is a complex subject – no matter what generation we’re talking about. If you’re addicted, you need professional help to overcome the disease. That’s as true for the Echo Generation as it is for any other generation.
With their myopia and self-centeredness, however, it may be more difficult for Echos to recognize and accept that they do have a problem. Denial, belief that they can handle it (alcohol, drugs, texting, etc.) on their own without outside help, and refusal of assistance – classic symptoms of an addict unwilling to get treatment – may signal a lengthier time of addiction for Echos who do have a problem with substance or other abuse.