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.
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.