The Great Smartphone Experiment

The Great Smartphone Experiment

It happened in an instant. One moment, the yellow school bus was thundering on its way, full of chattering 12-year-olds. The next instant, it hit an unseen pothole and bounced violently. Two classrooms of children were suddenly floating, airborne, as though they were cresting the top of an amusement park’s best roller coaster.

A moment later, the kids crashed to the ground. Teachers hurried back to take stock while I—a parent chaperone—talked to a few of the less affected students near the front of the bus.

“I was all right,” a nearby girl told me. “But Alyssa hit the roof.” She showed me her phone. The classroom of kids—the majority with smartphones anyway—had put their devices to work. Mere seconds had passed, but they were already dissecting the drama in a group chat.

If you’re a kid in high school or middle school, you more than likely have a smartphone as an ever-present companion. The average age for a child to get a first smartphone was 10 in 2016, down from 12 a few years earlier. The average young smartphone user is on their device around an hour a day (at first), then nearly three hours every day when they hit their teenage years.

Parenting has always been a tough job. But compared to the other anxiety-inducing hazards of modern life—television, computer games, dating, junk food—the smartphone is unique. Only a smartphone is embedded in our daily lives. It occupies a place of privilege, permanently by our side in a pocket or a purse. This placement gives it the possibility of influencing almost every activity and interaction we experience.

If you’re expecting an angry screed about the way smartphones change young lives—consuming hours of free time, taking focus from previously enjoyed activities, shortening attention spans—this isn’t it. In fact, the science around early-age smartphone use is far from definitive. How could it be? The very first iPhone was released in 2007. If you gave an iPhone on its release date as an expensive gift to a classroom of 12-year-olds, you’d barely have data to age 24. Until there are large studies that follow hundreds of children through years of early smartphone use, it will be impossible to draw accurate conclusions about their long-term effects.

That hasn’t stopped people from speculating. Researchers have suggested that smartphones promote obesity (by reducing activity), inhibit social skills (by replacing face-to-face communication with endless texting), and the blue light emitted by smartphones may affect our sleep patterns and cognitive performance. Smartphone use could even trigger physical changes. Just as our eyes suffered an epidemic of myopia when our civilization embraced reading and other types of near-focus work, perhaps hours spent hunched over the screen of a tiny mobile device will change the posture of future generations. But each of these arguments is just a hypothesis, backed by provisional research over a few years of study at most. We simply don’t know the real answers.

That’s not to say there aren’t red flags. Studies that look at adults find that simply having your smartphone out on the table beside you is enough to cause a drop in performance on any task that needs focused concentration. The effect could be worse for teenage brains, which are already in a period of dramatic upheaval. In fact, the changes taking place in a teenage brain are second only to the neuronal rewiring of early childhood.

More troubling, a study published in 2017 found a surge of depression symptoms in teenagers. Out of half a million teenagers, those who had more smartphone screen time and spent more hours on social media were the ones most likely to be struggling with feelings of low self-esteem and unhappiness. The sudden uptick started in 2012—the first year that a majority of teenagers were smartphone owners.

Studies like these can only show suggestive connections. Despite the blaring headlines, they don’t prove anything. But they should make us ask if an uncritical love of our miraculous pocket computers could be putting our children at risk.

If smartphones are a great big unknown, why are we so casual about introducing them to our kids?

One reason may be that we have no other choice. Technology companies have outgamed us. They’ve built phone-powered solutions for everyday activities (finding directions, staying in contact with friends, taking pictures, answering questions) that are leagues better than the ones we used before our lives were dominated by smartphones.

Having a smartphone also plays well to parental concerns about a child’s newfound independence. The smartphone offers a cushion of comfort as growing kids begin walking alone and going to parties outside of parental supervision. Safety is a powerful totem. And more than a few families quietly relish the ability of phones to keep their kids away from other anxiety-inducing activities. After all, you don’t need to worry that your kids are skateboarding down a busy freeway with a reckless gang of friends if they’re safely behind the screen of a Snapchat session.

Smartphones also have potent socioeconomic meaning. Few parents are immune to the silent status competition that plays out between families—the desire to show your child is ahead of others, or at least keeping up with their peers. Living without a phone is difficult for a 12-year-old and almost unthinkable for most teenagers. It means being cut out from an entire peer social world of shared texts, pictures, and plans. Combine this with the natural desire of quickly maturing kids to adopt the habits of the adults around them, and you can see why giving smartphones to children is an idea that seduces the whole family. But voices urging caution with smartphones have come from unexpected places, including some of the titans of the tech world.

Bill Gates made headlines in 2017 when he declared that he didn’t allow his kids to have smartphones until age 14. Steve Jobs restricted the iPad (now a family favorite) from his children when it was first released. Tristan Harris, Google’s former in-house ethicist, argues that smartphones are designed to capture kids’ attention and hold onto it—forever. (As he remarks, “YouTube has one goal: to make you forget your goals and to keep you watching as many YouTube videos as possible.”) But the most forceful smartphone skeptic is surely Chamath Palihapitiya, the former vice president of user growth for Facebook. He sees social media as ripping apart the fabric of society, replacing meaningful interactions with short-term feedback loops centered on hearts, likes, and thumbs up. He doesn’t allow his children to participate.

But perhaps the most important voices are those of the kids themselves. A clear majority of teenagers with smartphones—90% of those between the ages of 13 and 17, according to a Pew Research Center survey—say that spending time online is a problem facing their generation, with 60% calling it a major problem. They may need our help. One detail that stands out in the Pew Research surveys is how teen troubles mirror those of their parents. Kids describe how their smartphone distracts them from schoolwork; adults describe how it distracts them on the job. And just as parents report being concerned about teen screen time, teens describe parents who are too occupied by their smartphones to have face-to-face conversations. Perhaps this shows that they, like us, are often powerless to turn away from the wonderland of digital distraction. Or maybe it suggests that the examples adults set have more effect than we realize on our children’s smartphone habits.

Families that set clear smartphone rules may be able to manage the endless temptation of digital distraction. For example, homes that create “family device hubs”—a place to leave your devices recharging overnight and out of impulse’s reach—may be happier. But one thing is certain. We’ve already plunged headfirst into the great smartphone experiment. The outcome is unknown. And someday, in the still-distant future, it will be up to our children to write the final result.

The Great Smartphone Experiment

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