Archive for 14 September 2017

The problem with the smartphone

14 September 2017

(Reprinted from The Edge – Options pullout, 11 September 2017 issue)

Dear Kam,
My son spends too much time on his smartphone. I want to take it away from him but then he might go outside and get into trouble. Basically, I want him to just sit there in silence and study all the time. What’s wrong with wanting my boy to be safe?
Particular parent

Unfortunately, I cannot remember where I heard this story but I was told about an older person who thought “lol” meant “lots of love” and not “laugh out loud”. So when she was sent a very sad message that a beloved family member had just died, she replied “lol”. She couldn’t understand why this then led to a bitter family argument and accusations that she was an emotionless monster.

I don’t have a problem with the use of emojis and abbreviations like “lol”. It’s actually quite hard to put across nuances of thought or emotion on the internet where people cannot see our faces or hear our voices. The new shorthand is very clear and easy to understand. There’s very little room for misinterpretation with “lol”, unless you think it means “lots of love”. And you want to make sure you are clearly understood on the internet because it is a dangerous minefield.

I didn’t grow up with the internet but eventually, I will be phased out and replaced by younger people who have only known life and personal interactions on the internet, the smartphone and whatever it is that will come next. We’re passing through a transitional phase at the moment where those of us who grew up interacting face-to-face are still in the majority but very soon, we will be outmoded by those who grew up with FaceTime. The younger generation will have very different ideas about interaction and communication. What might that world look like?

I think the internet will become a desert. Nobody will dare to post their opinions because they will fear the potentially negative reactions. Facebook allows people to share their personal stories and also their political opinions. There is then room for replies that can become nasty or nonsensical. Facebook is not popular with young people who have already walled themselves off into self-selected communities of actual/virtual friends (the distinction will become irrelevant). In these communities, there will be safety and privacy. People might continue to be public in something like Instagram, which is pretty but bland. Venturing an opinion will become a thing of the past because the backlash could become unbearable. I think the coming generation will be a fear-filled bunch.

There’s a very interesting article in The Atlantic by Jean M Twenge called “Have smartphones destroyed a generation?” The author is an American psychologist who found that something happened to young people around 2012. That was the year when the proportion of Americans owning smartphones reached 50% and by 2017, three out of four American teenagers owned one. The author calls them the iGen. They have grown up with smartphones and, she says, “The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health.” You should read the article yourself but the author paints a bleak picture of a depressed, distressed and isolated generation that does not go outside but instead live their lives through their phones. The data, the author says, shows that social networking makes people unhappy.

The Atlantic article is bleak but wait a minute before you throw away your child’s phone. I’ve read a lot of academic papers and they tend to follow the same formula. The papers tend to be absolutely unequivocal and the author will state that they are the first to find some new data or read it correctly because they are terrific and the other academics are stupid. Nowadays, academics have to really fight for their funding and they need to make a big splash. If nuance and subtlety has been lost on the internet, then it has also been lost in academia. I know academics who are leaving academia because the rewards go to the “rockstar” professors who can create the biggest noise on sexy subjects. We will not be finding any more subtle new interpretations of mid-period Etruscan pottery but we will hear a lot about how dangerous smartphones are for young people.

When I was young, my mother worried that I was watching too much TV. I loved watching Scooby Doo before graduating to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. My mother spent much of her childhood on a farm but I did not. Our childhoods seemed very different but actually had something in common. We both grew up quite isolated. She was in an isolated rural village and although I was in a town, I didn’t have any friends. She had some friends and they used to meet up inside the village’s only telephone box. And I had the TV.

My point is that technology might change but the underlying emotional story remains the same. Young people suffer from the boredom and fear of isolation. Parents and siblings can be great fun but they are not the same as having friends who are their own age. A lack of friendship leaves an absence in a person’s life that needs to be filled. My mother had the telephone box, I had the TV, and now young people have the smartphone. As humans, we are social animals and we want to be with people. The problem with the smartphone is that it is physically isolating even if it offers the appearance of connectivity. As older people, we need to make sure that young people are physically and emotionally in contact with actual friends and we must not be afraid of what might happen. That’s easy for me to say because I don’t have any children but I do believe that the problem with smartphones is that they offer parents an excuse to never let their babies grow up and be free.

My mother was afraid that I was watching too much TV but she allowed and encouraged me to go outside. And I will always be grateful for that.

Reprinted with the kind permission of