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The Kids May or May Not Be All Right, and it May or May Not Be the Fault of Their Phones

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It’s rare, in this polarized world of ours, that voices on the left and on the right sound off on the same side of an issue. Rare enough that when it happens, it’s probably worth paying attention.

I noticed just such a phenomenon on Facebook last week, when one of my more politically right-leaning friends shared a blog post by Professional Angry Christian Person Matt Walsh, while at the same time one of my more leftward-tilted friends shared an article from that generally progressive-ish magazine, The Atlantic. Both articles were ranting about the same thing: the use of smartphones by children and youth is not simply affecting, not merely changing, but literally destroying a generation. Today’s tweens and teens are weak, passive, immobile, unable to cope with the outside world – because they spend all their time on their phones.
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This wasn’t, it turned out, some rare confluence of independently-arrived-at opinions. Matt Walsh was responding directly to the Atlantic article, filtering author and psychologist Jean M. Twenge’s research and concerns through his own particular prisms. When we do find that rare agreement between people and parties who usually disagree – when Matt Walsh reads an article in The Atlantic and responds with agreement instead of venom – it’s either because the thing is so incontrovertibly true that it transcends our divisions, or because it agrees with some preconceived biases we hold (such as, Technology Is Evil or Everything Was Better in the Good Old Days).

On the surface of it, the agreement here seems to fall into the “incontrovertibly true” category. Kids today get smartphones at what seems to me ridiculously young ages (seriously, why would you put a $700 piece of electronics into the hands of the seven-year-old who just pulled off Barbie’s head??). They spend a lot of time on them, and this has changed both the kids and the culture. Our kids are having experiences online that those of us who grew up when there was no “online” cannot fully understand, and we don’t know what the consequences might be. We can see that change is happening quickly, and it scares us, regardless of whether we’re pre-programmed to think that change is usually a good thing or that change is the Devil’s calling card.

Probing a little more deeply into the original article, I began to question some of the panic it engendered. It starts, as such pieces always do, with an anecdote: Twenge talked to a 13-year-old girl and found that this young teenager is in the habit of going to the mall with her family, rather than hanging out there unsupervised with her friends; she’s more likely to spend time with her friends online than in real life. Twenge continues to pile anecdotal evidence alongside research, creating the impression that smartphone use has spawned a generation of children who spend all their time locked in their rooms staring at screens, unable to interact with the world outside in any meaningful way.

There is some genuine hard data backing Twenge’s article, and I’m sure if I were to read her book iGen I would find more: she has made a career-long study of generational differences. She cites, for example, the fact that more than one in four kids today does not have a driver’s license by the time they graduate from high school (a higher rate, it seems, than in the previous generation, though she doesn’t cite the numbers for earlier generations), and that the number of sexually active 9th-graders has dropped by 40% since 1991, with average teens now having sex for the first time in Grade 11, rather than in Grade 10 as the previous generation did. From these, and from the agreed-upon and undeniable fact that kids have access to a technology that no previous generation has had, she draws the conclusion that smartphones are the cause, and everything from less sex to fewer drivers’ licenses are the effect.

You’d think that some of the changes in teen behavior that Twenge cites would be ones that a conservative like Matt Walsh would celebrate: fewer fourteen-year-olds having sex, for example, or declining alcohol use among teens (another statistic Twenge cites). But because the cause of these behavioral changes must be smartphone use, even these apparently positive changes must be the result of something dark and sinister: the siren-like call of the screen luring kids away from both the positive and the negative “normal behaviors” of youth. You know, normal, risk-taking and independence-seeking behaviors like getting your drivers’ license and then using it to drive up to Signal Hill with your date and explore some fumbling attempt at intercourse in the back seat. Just like we used to do in the good old days, kids.

Look, I’m not trying to deny that smartphones (and similar technologies – tablets, etc) have changed and are changing us, our kids, and our culture. We’ve all seen the phenomenon of kids glued to their phones when people are trying to have conversations with them, or show them amazing views on vacation. (We’ve also all seen kids take beautiful phone pictures of the amazing views and post them on Instagram, or jump into the adult conversation with an interesting and relevant fact they just Googled. But these behaviors don’t fit the paradigm of “kids and their darned phones” so they rarely get included in the conversation about kids and smartphones).

There are real dangers online, like sexual predators, and less fully-understood dangers too. We don’t know what the long-term effects will be of kids carrying out some of their social interaction through text and emojis rather than face to face. Heck, we don’t know what the long-term effects of doing that ourselves will be. Every new technology brings changes, and most of society – the non-Amish part of it anyway — rushes headlong into embracing cool new stuff without fully understanding what those changes will involve.

And I am not, for one second, arguing that parents don’t need to be concerned about or set limits on kids’ screen time. I am, after all, infamous in certain circles as the parent who, right up to nearly the end of high school, used to turn off the wifi in the house at 10:00 p.m. (I also didn’t believe that teens needed data on their phones, so the loss of the wifi meant they were CUT OFF from the online world at bedtime. For this cruelty I was once called, by one of my offspring, “Nazi Mom,” leading me to reply, “Yes, that was the Nazis’ real crime – the way they turned the wifi off in the concentration camps at bedtime.” An informal online poll of my acquaintances conducted the same night I got called Nazi Mom revealed that while no other household had our exact same rules, every household with teenagers imposed some kind of rules or limits on kids’ use of phones and internet).

I absolutely believe that young teens should not have unlimited access to wifi and data, that parents should know and discuss with their kids what they’re doing online, and that kids should be taught basic phone etiquette, like put the darn thing away at the table or when your grandparents are trying to talk to you.

All that being said, I think the Atlantic article, and many of the responses and thinkpieces it spawned, struck an unnecessarily alarmist note. Nowhere in Twenge’s article was research used to show causation as well as correlation between kids’ use of smartphones and the other behavioral changes observed (it’s possible that the data may be there in her book, but that wasn’t reflected in the article). Even when the behavioral changes were backed up by data (not all were), there was no study showing that a decreased likelihood of getting a summer job (another generational change Twenge mentions) was linked to increased smartphone use, for example.

As a parent and a teacher, I’m certainly concerned about kids’ use of the internet for lots of reasons, but I also don’t see the claims put forth in Twenge’s article lining up with the behaviors I observe in real life. Yes, I see kids – mine and other people’s – on their phones All. The. Danged. Time. (I see adults doing this almost as much, btw – including, sometimes, myself). But I also see these kids engaging in lots of normal, independent teen behaviors. This includes positive behaviors, like working part-time jobs and singing in the school musical, and negative behaviors, like having sex and smoking weed. Behaviors which, both positive and negative, involve getting your face out of the screen and interacting with the real world.

Admittedly, I’m going with anecdotal evidence, not data here, only looking at what I personally have observed. I think of my 17-year-old daughter and her four closest friends, whom I’ve watched grow up together since elementary school. Of that group of five teenagers who will graduate from high school next year – yes, they all have phones (though they vary in when or whether they have data available) and they all use the internet a lot, in many different ways. Two of them have their drivers’ licenses; three don’t. Three of them have summer jobs and part-time jobs during the school year; two don’t. These numbers seem about similar to me to what I remember from my own friends at the same age, but the hazy memory of a middle-aged mom isn’t data, so don’t quote me on that.

The relevant thing to me, observing this small group of young people, is that I have a pretty good idea of the reasons why the three who don’t have their drivers’ licenses don’t have them, and why the two who don’t have jobs aren’t working. They’re very specific reasons related to family or personal issues or to socio-economic factors. There is absolutely no correlation, that I can see, between phone or internet use and the likelihood of getting your license or a job, in the group of kids that my kids know.

Obviously five teens is a tiny sample size, but when I think about the kids my daughter knows, the kids my son knows, the children of my friends, and my own students, I see the same variations. Some are risk-takers, some are cautious kids. Some are progressing to adult independence in what we might think of as “normal,” healthy ways; others are held back for a variety of reasons. While access to the internet may make it easier for a shy, socially anxious kid to hide in her room and avoid confrontation with the outside world, I don’t see much evidence that normally-developing kids are choosing to be on their phones rather than go to parties or to their shift at Mcdonalds. Rather, they are bringing their phones along on all these adventures, and using them to record and respond to those experiences – for better and for worse.

If the most alarmist generalizations in the Atlantic article were true, then we should also see a dramatic fall in the rates of participation in teenagers’ extracurricular activities, since any time they’re not mandated to be in school is being spent in a darkened room in front of a screen. High school sports teams, choirs, and bands should be shutting down for lack of participation; high school musicals and plays failing to go onstage because not enough kids can be lured away from their phones to try out. If such things are happening, I certainly haven’t seen evidence of it in my community, nor have I seen data suggesting this is the case. In fact, when such programs do falter, it’s more frequently because those darned adults at the school board or in government have cut funding for extracurricular programs, rather than because the darned kids can’t be bothered to show up.

Things like whether a kid gets a driver’s license or a summer job are far more likely, I’d argue, to be affected by socio-economic factors than by smartphone use. Getting your license, for example, requires a family car, a parent who can drive and has time free to teach their child to drive, as well as enough money to take the test – often more than once! – and possibly also to attend driving school. Not to mention money to insure a teenage driver on that family car once they have the license. When we see shifts and changes occurring, it can be quick and easy to blame the phone, because it’s a possible cause we can easily observe, but the studies haven’t been done (and probably won’t be for a long time) to actually demonstrate whether or not the kids who don’t have jobs, or haven’t had sex yet, are the same ones using their phones excessively, or whether broader societal factors might be at play.

Twenge notes that the changes she has seen in the behavior of this generation coincide not only with the widespread popularity of the smartphone but also with one of the biggest economic downturns in the US in recent decades. But she doesn’t explore whether economic factors such as greater insecurity and  instability in families might contribute to some of these trends at least as much as smartphones do. Similarly, she notes rising rates of mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression among youth but implies the correlation with the use of smartphones suggests causality without exploring what other factors might be at play. (Again, I’m referring to the Atlantic article; there is likely more sustained and thoughtful analysis in her book, but I haven’t read it).

As I read blogs and opinion posts about how we’re “losing an entire generation” to smartphones, I can’t help remember that I, too, am a survivor of a lost generation. We kids who were born in the 60s and grew up in the 70s – and those who came just before and after us, those late-Boomers and Gen Xers – were seduced by the siren call of a new technology: the television. The older generation shook their heads in dismay – well-documented dismay – at how kids of my era sat in front of the TV for hours, lured by the flickering boob tube, rather than going out swimming in the creek and committing petty crimes like the healthy, normal kids of the 1930s and 40s used to do. We were all going to be lazy, obese, unmotivated, incapable of focusing on anything for more than 30 minutes, unable cope with the real world.

And, ok, some of us are these things. And the introduction of television into every family home did have far-reaching consequences, as every new technology does. But we all grew up. We peeled ourselves away from the screens and got jobs and had sex and took risks and married and had families of our own and went on to create both the smartphone, and the kids who we now worry are spending too much time on their smartphones.

And, perhaps most tellingly, in these same thinkpieces and blogs where people of my age (and those a bit older and bit younger) moan and wring their hands about kids being online all the time, the writers flash back to the halcyon days of their own childhood: the unstructured outdoor play, the creativity, the risks they took. They do not seem to recall the 107,000 hours of Gilligan’s Island reruns they watched. But anyone today who is the right age to have a blog and rant on it was definitely told at least 107,000 times to “turn off that TV and get outside and play!!!!” when they were growing up.

It’s too facile to say, of course, that the kids are alright and will be alright. Some of the kids will be and some of them won’t, and as adults we all – including parents – have roles to play in helping them be more alright. And monitoring and limiting the use of technology is one of those roles, as is helping to create a society with socio-economic structures that allow more young people to have education, jobs and opportunities.

The latter, in case you didn’t notice, is a danged sight harder than the former, which may be why we want to rant about phones rather than having productive discussions about, say, how to reduce the burden of student debt, or how to encourage more kids to go into the skilled trades, or how to prepare them for a world in which automation may take over their jobs before they’ve even finished training for those jobs.

I also know that we live in the Golden Age of Clickbait, and that an article that tells us we are “Destroying An Entire Generation!!!!!!” is more likely to get clicks than one that says “Some Data Suggests Smartphone Use May Have Damaging Effects on Kids, but the Correlation and Causality Have Not Been Fully Explored Yet, However It’s Probably Still a Good Idea to Set Some Reasonable Limits on Your Children’s Use of Technology.” Most people are only going to read the headline anyway – certainly very few people are going to read to the end of this 2500-word-plus blog post I’ve just penned. But then, we all had our attention spans destroyed by half-hour sitcoms back in the 70s, so that’s not really surprising, is it?

If you made it this far, leave me a comment and let me know: did you survive your TV-soaked childhood and adolescence? And are your own kids, or the kids you see around you, with their faces glued to their iPhones, progressing semi-normally into adulthood? I’d love to know how other people’s observations line up with my own.

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10 thoughts on “The Kids May or May Not Be All Right, and it May or May Not Be the Fault of Their Phones

  1. Trudy, Trudy, Trudy! Well said and thank you. I am so tired of reading – hearing – the condemnation of technology – the horrific consequences – yada yada. My 13 almost 14 year old grand daughter loves her device and spends as much time on it as she is permitted. She also loves to dance and sing, is tops in school, reads more than most people I know, and is a wonderful sister to her younger siblings. Her friends are the dearest people one could ever hope to meet – I have known them since kindergarten. Smart and talented beyond belief. I have nieces and nephews – and my own grown daughters who spend a lot of time on their whatever-they’re-calleds too. Amazing, educated, hard-working and on and on. I’ll go now. But, again, THANK YOU so very much.

  2. This was EXCELLENT, most EXCELLENT as always! I read the Atlantic article yesterday and I wasn’t very alarmed. You analysis is excellent. I watched quite a bit of TV, including lots of (aired on TV, in Brazil no less) movies that I watched *with my parents*! My husband grew up way more sheltered (although we both were pastor’s kids, my parents enjoyed watching movies, his didn’t), so he sometimes doesn’t like that I take our older son to the movies once in a while, although he doesn’t object if we watch DVDs/ streaming/bluray movies at home. My older son (15) spends a lot of time in his phone, but he also does other things and, exactly as you described, takes photos, posts them, and reads a lot of stuff online that he talks to us about. I agree that most probably “all is not lost”!

  3. Everyone needs to know their limitations – as Dirty Harry said. And that includes children, and starting at a very early age. They need to know just what is right and wrong, etc. Unfortunately, when it comes to electronic devices, some parents are worse than the youngsters. I was in the Mall a while ago and saw a mother and little girl sitting on one of the benches – the mother was using her cell-ipad, whatever, with the little girl sitting next to her, being totally ignored. Now, anyone with a grain of sense at all can see that that just isn’t right. If parents can’t pace themselves regarding these devices, how can they be expected to teach their children responsible use of them? I know times have changed drastically over the past decade or two, but we shouldn’t throw away our morals and values, etc., over these new devices that you just can’t keep up with any more. Children need ‘live’ companionship, exercise, conversation, etc., just as much now as we did when growing up. Will the novelty ever wear off, I wonder?

    God Bless!

    • I’m sure the novelty will wear off, but then it will be replaced by something else. One thing I do notice with teens is that although they’ve grown up in the digital world and take it for granted, they also have a hunger for “vintage” or “real” experiences. My daughter has an e-reader but prefers paper books; my son collects vinyl record albums. There’s a whole trend among teens and young adults for playing board games where you get to sit down with people in real time and play games with each other.

      I agree with you that parents distracted by phones, etc., are a bigger problem than the kids themselves!

  4. Yes! Raymond Williams, writing in 1958 about the dreaded effect of television, said that the introduction of the novel had sent similar shock waves around a generation of English parents in the nineteenth century. Novels were said to be addictive, to decrease social interaction, and to create a false impression of reality. And that is all true. They also are enriching, an excuse for social interaction and help readers emphasize with people who live very different lives from the reader. And there is no question that the introduction of the novel did change the human race for generations to come.

    I agree with you, all new innovations call for new protocols–but basic common sense doesn’t change. And I agree with Daphne–it’s the parents that I worry about. Personally, I’m alarmed by the use of smartphones as electronic pacifiers, often when the baby isn’t even crying.

    • Great comment about the nineteenth century and novels, Jennifer — those of us from an Adventist background will no doubt be able to recognize and place EGW’s comments about novel reading in that context as well. Always something for the older generation to worry about.

  5. I am a Gen X-er but I did not have a TV-soaked childhood and adolescence because I was raised without a TV in the house (partly because my father regretted his own TV-soaked childhood). This non-mainstream upbringing resulted in adult-me knowing that I do not have to have whatever addictive technology everyone else has, that I can make deliberate choices about what I do and do not allow into my life (I do not have children, but if I did this would apply to them too, of course). I have chosen not to have a smartphone, in fact not to have a cell phone at all. I have chosen not to be on Facebook. I do have a wifi-only iPad but plan not to replace it and have already started finding alternative methods of accomplishing some of the tasks I use it for. I do have a computer, Internet access, an email address, a Netflix account. I pick and choose. Not saying my choices are the best for everyone, but I think they’re the best for me. And I am still grateful to have been raised without TV.

    • Well I think that is a key point … making the choices that are best for you. Simply adopting something because everyone has or is doing it, without thinking how it will impact your life, is never a good idea.

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