Are smartphones bad for kids?

One of the earliest ancient inscriptions has been translated as reading, “Kids today don’t behave well or respect their elders like they used to.”

This essay may sound like that. And I’m one of those dinosaurs who doesn’t use a smartphone. So either I don’t know what I’m talking about, or can discuss smartphones with detached objectivity.

The word “addiction” often comes up here. And while these devices obviously entail vast benefits, many people feel they’re a curse, enslaving them. Kids’ use is a particular concern.

I’ve seen data showing American children aged 8-12 use their phones, on average, six hours a day. Teenagers: nine hours. Even if these numbers are inflated, clearly the phenomenon is huge. For these kids, school must be a very secondary activity.

What do they actually do, on their phones, for all those hours? I researched this question. (Yes, my blog posts are carefully researched.) Well, research is not what they use their phones for. The main things are gaming and social media; for boys it’s more the former, for girls more the latter. Regarding social media, Facebook is rather passe; the place to be is Instagram (a more simplified alternative that emphasizes photo sharing). Kids also use their phones to watch shows and other video, and listen to music.

Much of this they do while doing other things — like school, or homework, or even several of those phone activities simultaneously. It’s called “multitasking,” and people think it’s an efficient use of time. But studies show we greatly over-rate our multitasking ability. Generally, doing two things at once means doing neither of them efficiently or well. We perform far better when concentrating attention on one thing at a time.

The music, video, and gaming kids enjoy; the social media not so much. Despite its engendering very mixed emotions, kids, especially girls, feel they can’t opt out, that’s social death. But the problem is that social media puts their fragile self-regard on the line pretty much continuously. They live for “likes.” The main reason they post things is to elicit “likes” from their peers; they give “likes” to others to court reciprocity. A posting that doesn’t get enough response signals personal failure. You’re nobody without a lot of Instagram likes.

Neuroscience is relevant here. The amygdala is a primitive part of the brain responsible for fear and anxiety, the flight-or-fight response. The amygdala activates when one feels social exclusion. The prefrontal cortex, a more advanced brain area, responsible for rational thought, talks you down from the amygdala’s going ballistic. That’s how it works for adults. But for teenagers, while the amygdala is fully developed, the prefrontal cortex is not (until the mid-twenties in fact). That makes teenagers’ online social lives a particularly explosive emotional minefield.

At least phones keep kids from ever being bored. Formerly a staple of childhood, the very concept of boredom seems to have disappeared. Not necessarily a good thing. Our brains may need some down time, to just wander. If they’re on and stimulated constantly without let-up, something important, developmentally, could be lost.

Helicopter parenting probably doesn’t help. The obsession to keep kids safe, from the terrors of the outside world, keeps them locked in their homes; they don’t much hang out in the streets, socializing, like we used to in my own Pleistocene childhood. Smartphones at least offer a way to connect to that outside world.

Unfortunately they also make it easier to act badly. The nature of the medium, its impersonalness, where you don’t have to confront someone face-to-face, virtually encourages snarkiness. A lot of bullying and personal destruction results.

Phones are also used a lot for sexting. But hormones and smartphones are not a good fit. While youngsters seem to be sexualizing earlier, actual sex among teenagers is actually trending downward. That might sound like a good thing, but their sexuality may be channeled in less healthy ways that don’t put them on a path toward mature, fulfilling relationships. I think this shows up in the steep decline in marriage rates, and corresponding rise in single parenthood. For kids especially, the whole smartphone thing makes what we used to call “dating” more fraught. I put “dating” in quotes because that whole social construct — where one could gradually get to know a person and develop a bond — is largely a thing of the past.

The bottom line is that, according to (more) research, today’s youngsters seem less happy, lonelier, more anxiety-ridden, more likely to be clinically depressed, and more likely to commit or attempt suicide. Factors other than phone fixation may of course be at work, it’s hard to disentangle all the ways in which modern life is changing, and their effects. The mentioned over-protective parenting is, in many additional ways, counter-productive for kids’ emotional development and true well-being.

However, what really strikes me about the smartphone activity is that so much is just plain trivial. In all those “likes” being bandied back and forth, where is the meaningfulness? In fact, a lot of what kids do they do less for the sake of the activities themselves than to generate photos for Instagram. And never mind the triviality of “liking” a picture of someone doing something that’s basically trivial in itself — it’s not even genuine liking, but just a ploy to elicit reciprocal stroking. What a cat’s cradle of inauthenticity. And for a lot of kids, this is the hollow center of their lives.

Human relationships are a key to life, and much fulfillment comes from interacting with others who mean something to us. But it seems a lot of kids are trapped in cycles of interactions with people with whom they don’t have real relationships or intimacy. I feel fortunate to have realized pretty early that how I am seen in the eyes of people who matter to me is something that should matter to me; but how I’m seen (if at all) in the eyes of people who don’t matter to me is not.

P.S. If you enjoy this blog post, please be sure to click “like!”

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2 Responses to “Are smartphones bad for kids?”

  1. Lee Says:

    It is not all bad though. A person who would have had trouble finding others that are interested in some esoteric art form or music or literature genre or game, etc. can find like-minded folks online.

    And there are even some blogs that are worth reading.

  2. Lee Says:

    That it is all trivia may be seen as a positive. That is, that we are not constantly worried about where our next meal comes from or where to find shelter, etc. and instead have the luxury of pursuing the trivia we are most interested in … that could be viewed as a good thing.

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