Smartphones, idols and rescuing a generation (just not the one you think)

I’m usually pretty reluctant to confer the phrase ‘world-changing’ to gadgets and technological frippery but I think the smartphone qualifies. We’ve had ten years of it now so we’re able to stand back a bit and assess its impact. As a technology product, it has become ubiquitous and shows no signs of going the way, say, of the iPod, who the smartphone made redundant. I own one and have done for the last five years, my wife has one and there’s probably a couple of now pre-historic examples lurking in a drawer somewhere in case of some unspecified smartphone emergency.

My children were born into the world of the smartphone and although they do not yet have one (my eldest is just 9) it will, likely, accompany them throughout their life. Sadly, for this generation, they will witness the debilitating effects of an addictive technology first-hand and close up.

Recently Jean Twenge wrote a powerful article with the fear-inducing question Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? Her answer was an unequivocal yes they have. She claims that the iGeneration (those born between 1995 and 2012) are facing an almost unprecedented mental health crisis:

Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.

Now in one sense smartphones are not really the culprit, Twenge cites and blames social media sites like Snapchat and of course Facebook. But the relationship between the two is symbiotic, social media use is the prime use of smartphones (for almost everybody and especially teens). Social media have led the shift from talking to text, from emotional engagement to emoji and from shared jokes to sent gifs.

Today’s teens may go to fewer parties and spend less time together in person, but when they do congregate, they document their hangouts relentlessly—on Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook. Those not invited to come along are keenly aware of it. Accordingly, the number of teens who feel left out has reached all-time highs across age groups. Like the increase in loneliness, the upswing in feeling left out has been swift and significant.

This trend has been especially steep among girls. Forty-eight percent more girls said they often felt left out in 2015 than in 2010, compared with 27 percent more boys. Girls use social media more often, giving them additional opportunities to feel excluded and lonely when they see their friends or classmates getting together without them.

It’s also messing with their sleep which in turn will mess with just about everything else.

It may be a comfort, but the smartphone is cutting into teens’ sleep: Many now sleep less than seven hours most nights. Sleep experts say that teens should get about nine hours of sleep a night; a teen who is getting less than seven hours a night is significantly sleep deprived. Fifty-seven percent more teens were sleep deprived in 2015 than in 1991. In just the four years from 2012 to 2015, 22 percent more teens failed to get seven hours of sleep.

All of this is genuinely concerning but I think, and I’m not alone in this, that Twenge has missed the mark not because she’s necessarily wrong about the data (although there is some pushback on that) but because the use of social media and smartphones by teens and children is stripped out of its familial and societal context.

I would argue that there is another generations’ use of smartphones and social media that is far more likely to be at fault and is in greater need of correction. I am of course talking about their parents’ diabolical use of the devices.

Alexandra Samuel in her critique of Twenge’s piece says,

The fastest growth during that time [2005-2009] was among young adults (18-29) and 30-to-49-year-olds. One year before the iPhone, only 6% of people aged 30-to-49 were on social networks. By 2009, that had leapt up to 44%: that’s absolutely explosive growth.

What does that have to do with teens? Well, let me give you another name for 18-to-49-year-olds: parents. While teens were old hands at social networking by that point, they were still stuck texting on their feature phones. Meanwhile, their parents started catching up on the social networking front—with the added opportunity of accessing LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter on their shiny new iPhones and Androids.

I’d love to tell you we used this shiny new tech to look up educational resources for our children, or play them classical music in utero. And sure, there was a bit of that. But you know what smartphones and social media are really great at? Tuning out your children.

Samuel shares the result of some psychological experiments on the impact of distraction on parenting. It’s not encouraging.

when parents are distracted—as today’s parents are, perpetually, by our online lives—it’s the encouragement that suffers, more than the control. The result? Kids who stay inside their semi-gilded cages, because they don’t get the support they need to spread their wings.

It’s a fate I worry about with my own kids, who barely know what I look like without a device in my hands. If social media had been invented before I had kids, maybe I’d have realized that parenting would seriously interfere with my Twitter time, and given more thought to that trade-off.

Samuel’s argument is supported by a recent set of findings in the UK. It would seem that parents’ use of mobiles and the harmful effects on family life reveal that the first generation of victims of the smartphone revolution was not the children but the parents.

Unprepared and caught off-guard we quickly became addicted to the dangerous new drug of ‘connection’. We have allowed our minds to be hijacked and we showcase all the signs of addiction: dangerous levels of self-justification, over-stimulation, a willingness to spend ridiculous sums of money to feed our habit as we become oblivious to the needs of those around us we escape into another world and as we do other vices get installed into our characters and souls.

The results also show a significant level of denial about the impact it’s having on our kids and on families.

None of this should be surprising, as Alan Jacobs points out, “The human mind is, then, a workshop that perpetually cranks out idols.” Jacobs then takes this line of thinking and applies it to the computer (which is what your smartphone is) and argues that we carry in our pockets an idol-making factory.

The smartphone itself is just the factory, it’s the apps and platforms that are the idols. Sure the iPhone had something of the idol about it but it’s a weak and puny god compared to Facebook or YouTube or Snapchat. And as a comment to this follow-up post by Alan Jacobs says,

The idol-factory of the computer (the smartphone) is a tool that appears to be unconnected to any particular result. You can do anything with it. So our worship (in the broad sense) does not have to be directed towards any particular end. It can be mutable, merely an abstract possibility expressed in endlessly variable ways.

I think that’s basically right – the smartphone is a carrier of gods who promise to fulfil us, connect us, entertain us, give us sex, fame, power, money, popularity, love and beauty. These little gods promise to make us fabulous or take control of our lives, bodies and time – they promise to help us never forget and never be out of touch.

So what should we do? You can come up with rules and you can try to teach moderation and I’m sure all these things are helpful. I’m personally going to be reading Andy Crouch’s The Tech-wise Family to help me think this one through. And that is basically the best place for parents and adults in general to start. Take a close examination of their own use of technology before throwing our kids tablet out the window. We must model the behaviour we want them to copy.

As Trevin Wax argues we need to rediscover analogue discipleship:

Disciple-making is accomplished by modelers, not just messengers. We develop not merely through cognitive transfer, but also through witnessing the lives and choices of other disciples we encounter on our way.

Photo by ClearFrost

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