Demonized Smartphones Are Just Our Latest Technological Scapegoat

As if there wasn’t enough angst in the world, what with the Washington soap opera, #MeToo, false nuclear alerts, and a general sense of apprehension, now we also have a growing sense of alarm about how smartphones and their applications are impacting children.

In the past days alone, The Wall Street Journal ran a long story about the “parents’ dilemma” of when to give kids a smartphone, citing tales of addiction, attention deficit disorder, social isolation, and general malaise. Said one parent, “It feels a little like trying to teach your kid how to use cocaine, but in a balanced way.” The New York Times ran a lead article in its business section titled “It’s Time for Apple to Build a Less Addictive iPhone,” echoing a rising chorus in Silicon Valley about designing products and programs that are purposely less addictive.

All of which begs the question: Are these new technologies, which are still in their infancy, harming a rising generation and eroding some basic human fabric? Is today’s concern about smartphones any different than other generations’ anxieties about new technology? Do we know enough to make any conclusions?

Alarm at the corrosive effects of new technologies is not new. Rather, it is deeply rooted in our history. In ancient Greece, Socrates cautioned that writing would undermine the ability of children and then adults to commit things to memory. The advent of the printing press in the 15th century led Church authorities to caution that the written word might undermine the Church’s ability to lead (which it did) and that rigor and knowledge would vanish once manuscripts no longer needed to be copied manually.

Now, consider this question: “Does the telephone make men more active or more lazy? Does [it] break up home life and the old practice of visiting friends?” Topical, right? In fact, it’s from a 1926 survey by the Knights of Columbus about old-fashioned landlines.

The pattern of technophobia recurred with the gramophone, the telegraph, the radio, and television. The trope that the printing press would lead to loss of memory is very much the same as the belief that the internet is destroying our ability to remember. The 1950s saw reports about children glued to screens, becoming more “aggressive and irritable as a result of over-stimulating experiences, which leads to sleepless nights and tired days.” Those screens, of course, were televisions.

Then came fears that rock-n-roll in the 1950s and 1960s would fray the bonds of family and undermine the ability of young boys and girls to become productive members of society. And warnings in the 2000s that videogames such as Grand Theft Auto would, in the words of then-Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, “steal the innocence of our children, … making the difficult job of being a parent even harder.”

Just because these themes have played out benignly time and again does not, of course, mean that all will turn out fine this time. Information technologies from the printed book onward have transformed societies and upended pre-existing mores and social order.

So it should come as no surprise that concerns about children and smartphones have been rising steadily, and media has picked up on that. For the past decade, researchers have been trying to establish a link between teen depression and obsessive smartphone use. So too have parents, who oscillate between complacency and panic as they watch their children—and themselves—become increasingly attached to their devices.

There appears to be considerable research suggesting an unhealthy link. Teens are said to be more isolated and less likely to socialize physically with peers, as they spend more time alone in their rooms using devices to connect with other teens who are also, presumably, alone in their rooms. That, then, is said to correlate with less sleep, decreased ability to focus, to remember, and to make meaningful personal connections, along with increased depression, and ennui.

It’s worth scrutinizing these conclusions. The smartphone era is scarcely a decade old, dating from Apple’s introduction of the iPhone in 2007. That is a nanosecond in human evolution. No matter what we think we know now, we simply don’t know what the long-term effects of smartphones are or will be, any more than generations past could glean the effects of all of those earlier technologies on moods, relationships, and cognitive development.

Statistics here have a way of conveying certainty, such as, “teens who spend five or more hours a day (versus less than one) on electronic devices are 51 percent more likely to get less than seven hours of sleep.” Or, “about 16 percent of the nation’s high-school students were bullied online in 2015,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children who are cyberbullied are three times more likely to contemplate suicide, according to a study in JAMA Pediatrics in 2014. With such facts and figures, who could argue that there’s something to worry about. Throw in the increased unease within big technology companies such as Facebook about the corrosive effects of rumor and fake news in its feeds, and among executives such as former Facebook VP Chamath Palihapitiya that they’ve unleashed a potentially destructive force, and the argument would seem airtight.

Except that it’s not. Widespread parental apprehension combined with studies lasting only a few years, with few data points, and few controls do not make an unequivocal case. Is there, for instance, a control group of teens who spent an equivalent amount of time watching TV in the 70s or playing arcade video games in the 80s or in internet chat rooms in the 90s? There is not. We may fear the effects of the smartphone, but it would seem that we fear massive uncertainty about the effects of the smartphone at least as much.

Any new technology whose effects are unknown bears careful study, but that study should start with a blank slate and an open mind. The question should not be framed by what harm these devices and technologies cause but rather by an open-ended question about their long-term effects.

Take the frequently cited link between isolation, cyber-bullying, depression and suicide. Yes, suicide rates in the U.S. have been on the rise, but that has been true since the early 1990s, and prevalence is highest among middle-aged men, who are most disrupted by the changing nature and demographics of employment but are not the teens spending so many hours glued to their devices. Cyber-bullying is an issue, but no one kept rigorous data about physical and psychological bullying in the 20th century, so it’s impossible to know if the rate and effects of bullying have grown or diminished in a cyber age. As for depression, there too, no one looked at the syndrome until late in the 20th century, and it remains a very fuzzy term when used in mainstream surveys. It’s impossible to say with any certainty what the effects of technology and depression are, especially without considering other factors such as income, diet, age, and family circumstances.

Some might say that until we know more, it’s prudent, especially with children, to err on the side of caution and concern. There certainly are risks. Maybe we’re rewiring our brains for the worse; maybe we’re creating a generation of detached drones. But there also may be benefits of the technology that we can’t (yet) measure.

Consider even an anodyne prescription such as “everything in moderation.” Information is not like drugs or alcohol; its effects are neither simple nor straightforward. As a society, we still don’t strike the right balance between risk and reward for those substances. It will be a long time before we fully grapple with the pros and cons of smartphone technology.

More than not, the innovations we call “technology” have transformed and ameliorated the human conditions. There may have been some loss of community, connection to the land, and belonging; even here, we tend to forget that belonging almost meant exclusion for those who didn’t fit or didn’t believe what their neighbors did. The connectivity of today’s technology can simultaneously destroy some communities and create others.

Net-net, has the arc has bent towards progress? That is in the eye of the beholder, but any fair assessment must consider the progress on eternal human challenges that these technologies have provided. The smartphone is today’s emblem of whether one believes in progress or decline. It is a powerful tool, and any such tool has the capacity to do harm as well as great good. Finding balance has never been a human strong suit, but it has never been more needed.

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