Smartphone: The latest thing “they” want you to worry about

By John Hoffman

I am not a smartphone addict myself. But I really don’t want to join the chorus of people proclaiming their dire dangers for kids. For one thing, I can’t stand it when older people wag their fingers and declare that the younger generation should be able to do without things that hadn’t yet been invented when they (the finger wagers) were young. That stuff always rings hollow with me. It’s like, “Things were perfect when I was a kid. Let’s go back to the way things were before.”

Well, number one, things were never perfect before. And number two, we never go back to the way things used to be. So the smartphone “genie”, not to mention a number of other previous genies, is out of the bottle and they are not going back in.

I’ve actually written about cellphones before. But I’m reluctantly wading in again because of the recent onslaught of media articles about how bad smartphones are. You may have read the Time Magazine article “ We Need to Talk About Kids and Cellphones,” that came out in October, or Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?, which came out in The Atlantic a month earlier.  The Atlantic article was written by Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, and the Time article quotes her heavily. Go read the articles if you want, but basically they link a recent rise in young people’s mental health problems to the invention of the smartphone ten years ago. More recently, I’ve been reading news stories about tech company CEO’s who don’t allow their children to have smartphones because of their dangers.

I can’t, and I won’t, try to tell you how to handle smartphones with your kids. And I’m not in a position to say that the experts are wrong about their affect on children’s mental health, although I’m more optimistic about humanity’s ability to adapt to new fangled inventions.

But I do have a few thoughts that I hope might add a dose of calm to the discussion. I’ll start with a few things that I’m pretty sure are true.

  • Banning smartphones is not a realistic solution for most families. Years ago I would regularly see article with titles like, “How we lived without TV for a whole year.” Or “We threw away our computers and it’s just great!” However, the mass blow-up your TV or computer revolution never caught on and neither will the smartphone-free teen movement.
  • Experts and the media love to imply the world is ending because of a new trend; and it’s never true—at least not yet.
  • For all their potential drawbacks (which I don’t deny), smartphones have their positive side, as I’m sure you well know. Even though I believe strongly in the importance of face-to-face interaction (as opposed to electronic interaction) for kids and families, I have seen many instances of nice connection that happens electronically. In fact, kids I know these days are way more in touch (often electronically) with their parents than I was when I was a kid.
  • The downsides of smartphones most likely affect some vulnerable kids a lot more than others.
  • New technologies will keep coming at us. And the ones that catch on will become part of life. So we have to learn how live to with them, except for the small minority of people who choose to live without this or that new tech device.

I don’t have a blueprint for determining if your child spends too much time on devices, nor if it’s a problem. But if you’re concerned about this issue I do have a couple of suggestions for how to think about it:

Rather than start from the idea that smartphones are the problem, start by thinking about your kid. How things are going? Does she have friends? Is he getting enough sleep and exercise? How is school going? Does he have serious behaviour problems? Does she seem stressed a lot of the time? Do you and your kid talk and do things together on a reasonably regular basis?

If answers to those questions suggest there may be a problem, then you can start to think about what role smartphones may or may not be playing. And, yeah, maybe reducing your child’s smartphone time might be something to consider. But, the point is, look at your child first, as opposed to seeing the devil in the kid’s smartphone.

And, at risk of stating the obvious, if you want your kid to cut down on smartphone use, you need to do it too. It’s clear to me (oops, here I go being that all-knowing older person) that many, many people, including some of my generation, are glued to their smartphones way, way more than they need to be.

But smartphones are here to stay—well, at least until they get replaced by the next big tech innovation that experts will surely line up to condemn. In the meantime, just try to be “smart,” but not alarmist about smartphones.




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