We Need to Talk About Potatoes: The War On the Smartphone

Eric Andrew-Gee’s take on the corrosive damage smartphones are doing to us is unequivocal and seemingly part of a broader, ongoing war on these devices. Our phones, he reckons, are making us stupid, antisocial and unhealthy. Moreover, he contends:

The evidence [is] there, cold and hard, in a growing body of research by psychiatrists, neuroscientists, marketers and public health experts. What these people say – and what their research shows – is that smartphones are causing real damage to our minds and relationships, measurable in seconds shaved off the average attention span, reduced brain power, declines in work-life balance and hours less of family time. They have impaired our ability to remember. They make it more difficult to daydream and think creatively. They make us more vulnerable to anxiety. They make parents ignore their children. And they are addictive, if not in the contested clinical sense then for all intents and purposes.”

Gee contends that smartphones are essentially dopamine dispensers doing terminal damage to impressionable users, damage that is ultimately destroying society as we know it. He supports this claim with inferences to seismic, toxic shifts in global culture and dark warnings that we are destined to discover our desperate fate too slowly, too late. Research that supports this popular media perspective has been conducted by, among others, Jean M. Twenge at San Diego State University. Twenge charts the evolution of generational differences on a continuum that leads her to conclude that things such as a reduction in teen sexual activity, altered driving habits, social isolation and disengagement between children and parents can all be traced to the advent of the smartphone. There could hardly be a more definitive, alarming conclusion to any social research: “There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.”

Twenge’s research reveals that the average teen spends about two and a half hours a day on electronic devices.” This, interestingly, is no more time than teens were reportedly spending on screens during the latter part of the twentieth century when television was predicted to result in declines in literacy rates from which it was warned society might never recover. Such generational tales of tech-driven apocalypse are good news for those who need “data” to support antediluvian responses to the contemporary reality of our young people. 

Six years after Scott McLeod highlighted the need to empower students to do good with technology, rather than focus on fear and control, much of the educational focus in schools remains overwhelmingly on “the dangers of technology”. Step inside any educational technology conference and you will be overwhelmed by software solutions designed to monitor and control the tech use of young people. AI solutions are increasingly focused on the surveillance of students to determine if they are “engaged”, many, ironically while they are taking brain-numbing standardised tests. Smartphone bans are increasingly the solution to digital concerns: the abdication of responsibility to help our young people to self-regulate by providing them with a context in which they are treated with respect and trust. Strauss suggests a different approach:

“Blanket bans are rarely the most effective ways to fix human behavioural problems. Today’s children were born in a world where technology and digital gadgets were already a normal part of life. From an educational perspective, banning smartphones in schools would be an easy solution but not necessarily the smartest one. Instead, we should teach children to live safe, responsible and healthful lives with and without their smartphones and other mobile devices.”

The truth is that most issues that are associated with “problem technology use” have their roots elsewhere. Bullying existed before smartphones, as did pornography, screen addiction, and social isolation. While it is true that smartphones can exacerbate or facilitate these things, they can also have significant positive benefits for learning, social connection, and communication. We can’t teach students to balance their screen time with personal interaction by taking the choice away from them. It is difficult to pursue lessons in the pernicious reality of data privacy and surveillance capitalism without a real and critical engagement with these issues. As Karabell has observed: “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.”

When all is said and done, however, those who view the smartphone as more threat than opportunity will quote the research of people like Twenge and her alarming publication, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” as incontrovertible evidence in support of their stance. Interestingly, a new Oxford University study of 350,000 teens that includes Twenge’s original data suggests that these “alarming findings were just a result of cherry picking the data”:

“The new, more careful analysis shows that, no matter which measure you look at, screens have close to no effect on kids’ psychological health. Are phones making kids more depressed? No. More suicidal? More selfish? More isolated? The answer is no, no, and no again. Denworth brings home the point of how little effect screen time appears to have on measures of psychological well-being with a pair of memorable comparisons: ‘Technology use tilts the needle less than half a percent away from feeling emotionally sound. For context, eating potatoes is associated with nearly the same degree of effect and wearing glasses has a more negative impact on adolescent mental health.’”

We know that schools have an obligation to educate students in the safe and potentially empowering use of technology, to question critically the implications of privacy issues and to ensure healthy and balanced perspectives. This obligation includes a duty to treat young people as learners with the capacity to make wise choices as well as mistakes and see past control and surveillance as valid approaches to education. As Candice Odgers, a psychologist studying adolescent health and technology at the University of California, Irvine has concluded, “The real threat isn’t smartphones. It’s this campaign of misinformation and the generation of fear among parents and educators.” Here, it seems, are the real generational victims.

While the research on smartphone use may as yet be inconclusive and while the polarising perspectives remain hotly-contested, we already know this with certainty: bans and controls are not effective, focusing on fear and dark warnings are futile – there is only one way forward, as Ito has suggested:

‘“With anxiety stoked by fear-inducing media stories, and shamed by their peers, parents grasp for simple authoritarian solutions often against their kids’ interests. But when parents [and educators] take the time to appreciate and connect with their kids’ digital interests, it can be a site of connection and shared joy’—and a way to mentor kids to discover their own creativity.”  

Let’s focus on parenting, on educating, on open dialogue with our young people. Some will inevitably need close guidance, perhaps even intervention, but let’s not underestimate young people. The generation most in need of guidance here when it comes to the algorithms of alarm is not the one endangered by the perceived evils of the smartphone. Let’s not be governed by fear. Hot potato, we’re in this together. 

NOTES

Andrew-Gee, Eric. Your Smartphone is Making You Stupid, Antisocial and Unhealthy. So Why Can’t You Put It Down? The Globe and Mail. January 9, 2018.

Twenge, Jean M.
Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? The Atlantic. September, 2017.

Satariano, Adam & Peltier, Elian. “In France, School Lessons Ask: Which Twitter Post Should You Trust?” New York Times. December 13, 2018.

Strauss, Valerie, “Schools are banning smartphones. Here’s an argument for why they shouldn’t — and what they should do instead.” The Washington Post. September 21, 2018.

Karabell, Zachary. “Demonized Smartphones Are Just Our Latest Technological Scapegoat.” Wired. January 23, 2018.

Stillman, Jessica. Calm Down, Parents: A Rigorous New Oxford Study of 350,000 Teens Shows Screen Time Is About as Dangerous as Potatoes. Inc. January 23, 2019.

Denworth, Lydia. The Kids (Who Use Tech) Seem to Be All Right. Scientific American. January 15, 2019.

Kamenetz, Anya. What the Times got wrong about kids and phones. Columbia Journalism Review. November 5, 2018.

Image Credit: Photo by Tommy Tong on Unsplash.