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Smartphones Are Our Soma

The prominent psychology researcher Jean Twenge has a must-read piece on The Atlantic site today. [1] Here’s the gist of it:

I’ve been researching generational differences for 25 years, starting when I was a 22-year-old doctoral student in psychology. Typically, the characteristics that come to define a generation appear gradually, and along a continuum. Beliefs and behaviors that were already rising simply continue to do so. Millennials, for instance, are a highly individualistic generation, but individualism had been increasing since the Baby Boomers turned on, tuned in, and dropped out. I had grown accustomed to line graphs of trends that looked like modest hills and valleys. Then I began studying Athena’s generation.

Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs, and many of the distinctive characteristics of the Millennial generation began to disappear. In all my analyses of generational data—some reaching back to the 1930s—I had never seen anything like it.

At first I presumed these might be blips, but the trends persisted, across several years and a series of national surveys. The changes weren’t just in degree, but in kind. The biggest difference between the Millennials and their predecessors was in how they viewed the world; teens today differ from the Millennials not just in their views but in how they spend their time. The experiences they have every day are radically different from those of the generation that came of age just a few years before them.

What happened in 2012 to cause such dramatic shifts in behavior? It was after the Great Recession, which officially lasted from 2007 to 2009 and had a starker effect on Millennials trying to find a place in a sputtering economy. But it was exactly the moment when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent.

Twenge follows up with a barrage of statistics and analyses. The charts are jaw-dropping. Smartphones and social media are creating a society where people are radically atomized, and do not know how to interact with other people — not even their families. Twenge cites psychological research showing that kids in what she terms “iGen” (those born between 1995 and 2012, who grew up with smartphones) are far, far more likely to experience depression and malaise. One hopeful statistic from that generation — that they are having less sex, and starting it later — may well be due to the fact that they aren’t talking as much face to face to others.

Read the whole thing.  [1]I dare you to get through that piece and still be sanguine about giving your kids smartphones and unlimited access to social media. Twenge writes:

What’s at stake isn’t just how kids experience adolescence. The constant presence of smartphones is likely to affect them well into adulthood. Among people who suffer an episode of depression, at least half become depressed again later in life. Adolescence is a key time for developing social skills; as teens spend less time with their friends face-to-face, they have fewer opportunities to practice them. In the next decade, we may see more adults who know just the right emoji for a situation, but not the right facial expression.

Twenge focuses on smartphones, but makes it clear that she’s talking about screens, period. I’m not a big social media user, but I spend all my working day in front of a screen, and have for years. Over the last five years, I’ve worked from home, and on most days have had no interaction with people outside my immediate family. I must confess that I have let myself atrophy in terms of actual social engagement — with face-to-face friendships, I mean. I get to the end of the day feeling that it was a busy day, but the truth is, almost all my conversations have been via text or e-mail.

Not only that, but I have slowly become more withdrawn and introverted. I have noticed this for the past couple of years, and figured it was just part of getting older. I used to be fairly extroverted, but now when I take tests like the Myers-Briggs, I am marked as an introvert. I find public events more stressful than ever. I am most comfortable mediating my interactions with people through a screen.

Twenge’s piece made me think that what’s happening to me is not simply a part of getting older, as I had figured, but is mostly, or even entirely, driven by my heavy use of the screen. This is something I have to deal with.

Here’s a relevant passage from a recent book [2]:

At the neurological level, the Internet’s constant distractions alter the physiological structure of our brain. The brain refashions itself to conform to the nonstop randomness of the Internet experience, which conditions us to crave the repetitive jolts that come with novelty. Writes Nicholas Carr [author of “The Shallows”]:

One thing is very clear: if, knowing what we know today about the brain’s plasticity, you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the Internet.

The result of this is a gradual inability to pay attention, to focus, and to think deeply. Study after study has confirmed the common experience many have reported in the Internet age: that using the Web makes it infinitely easier to find information but much harder to devote the kind of sustained focus it takes to know things.

Compounding the problem, the technological mentality denies that there is anything important to be known, aside from how to make things that help us realize our desires: in ancient Greek, techne, or “craftsmanship,” versus episteme, or “knowledge gained through contemplation.” Techne refers to knowledge that helps you do things, while episteme refers to knowledge of how things are, so that you will know what to do.

Both contemplation and action are necessary to human flourishing. The Middle Ages prized contemplation, which is why medieval societies, including product of their technological knowledge, were ordered to God. The icon, thought to be a symbolic window into divine reality, is an apt symbol of the age. Contemplation is alien to the modern mode of life. The iPhone, a luminous portal promising to show us the world, but really a mirror of the world inside our heads, is the icon of our age.

Under the rule of technology, conditions that make authentic Christian life possible disappear. And most of us have no idea what’s happening.

You should read that book [2]. So should I, though I shouldn’t have to, because I wrote it. Physician, heal thyself.

A reader in his twenties who sent me a link to the Twenge essay writes, of the effects of smartphones:

The evidence is as overwhelming as it is unsurprising. The social effects are likely to be dramatic. How do these kids get a proper education, get married, and have kids with such high levels of mental illness and low levels of romantic interest (implied in the article)? And what does this do to their religiosity?

On the other hand as Heidegger was fond of quoting from Holderlin, “where the danger is, grows the saving power”. Constant thrum of smartphones and their gnostic disentangling of body and mind might drive these kids to the repose and spiritual unity that traditional Christianity offers. That tendency has already been visible in my generation and, if we can reach them, may be increased in the next.

I hope so. A parent I know told me her 13-year-old son is having a lot of trouble making friends. He’s the only one in his class without a smartphone. All the boys ever talk about, according to this kid, is what they’re watching on YouTube on their phones, and the games they’re playing on their phones. The kid wants to talk about music, sports, et cetera. But nobody else in his class does.

I am reading right now Michel Houellebecq’s 1998 novel The Elementary Particles [3]It’s rough going, because its descriptions of sex are pornographic, though never attractive. There’s a point to this ugliness, though. Houellebecq has written a portrait of two half-brothers, the offspring of a wastrel, flower-child mother who neglected them, and fathers who were absent from their lives. They both grew up in a loveless world. One became a sex-obsessed hedonist, desperate to find love and meaning; the other became a ghostly ascetic, incapable of making an emotional connection with anybody. What they share is their isolation from normal human love, growing up as they did in a generation that had cast off traditional family and religion, in favor of individualism and hedonism.

Houellebecq writes:

Metaphysical mutations – that is to say radical, global transformations in the values to which the majority subscribe – are rare in the history of humanity. The rise of Christianity might be cited as an example.

Once a metaphysical mutation has arisen, it tends to move inexorably toward its logical conclusion. Heedlessly, it sweeps away economic and political systems, aesthetic judgments and social hierarchies. No human agency can halt its progress – nothing except another metaphysical mutation.

It is a fallacy that such metaphysical mutations gain ground only in weakened or declining societies, When Christianity appeared. The Roman Empire was at the height of its powers: supremely organized, it dominated the known world; its technological and military prowess had no rival. Nevertheless, it had no chance. When modern science appeared, medieval Christianity was a complete, comprehensive system which explained both man and the universe; it was the basis for government, the inspiration for knowledge and art, the arbiter of war as of peace and the power behind the production and distribution or wealth – none of which was sufficient to prevent its downfall.

The Internet is the technological driver of the metaphysical mutation that began with (choose one):

a) the Renaissance, which led to the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason and the primacy of the individual; or

b) the Sexual Revolution, which placed the desiring individual at the center of the universe, and anchored identity in sexual desire

In a way, it really doesn’t matter. The point is, the metaphysical shift is undeniable. We are post-Christian now. The Internet and related technologies are leading the revolution in individualism and hedonism to their ultimate conclusion: everybody sitting in their rooms alone,  having virtual reality sex with a porn star of their own imagination (which is to say, masturbating).

Smartphones are our soma. [4]

This is a civilizational tsunami. If Christians are going to ride it out without drowning (so to speak), they are going to have to get very clear in their minds how the metaphysics of Christianity — that is, the model of how reality works — is very different from the metaphysics of modernity. And they are going to have to live this difference out, no matter the cost, making friends and allies from people in other religious traditions who, whatever their differences, ardently wish to hold on to what it means to be truly human, and not a slave to technology and desire.

This is the point I try to make in The Benedict Option [2]: that these are not normal times, and the only way Christians are going to survive them with their faith intact is by taking radical action nowPolitics cannot save us [5], because our core problem is not political, but rather metaphysical — and that is a matter of religion.

One of the more frustrating parts of the Benedict Option debate is that 90 percent of the people who interview me focus on the politics chapter, and maybe also the sex chapter — but almost nobody asks about the technology chapter, which might be the most important one. Jean Twenge indicates why.

62 Comments (Open | Close)

62 Comments To "Smartphones Are Our Soma"

#1 Comment By Joan On August 3, 2017 @ 11:16 pm

This post has media consumption leading to reduced sociability, but for me it was the other way around. I was socially dysfunctional from an early age, for a whole bouquet of reasons. Not having a social life, I sought out impersonal content to fill my time. This being before the internet, I became a bookaholic and a TV addict. I would also go for walks outdoors when I needed to release energy, but not for very long because my mom would flip out. (Not without reason. Local young women really were disappearing and turning up dead. It was one guy killing them all. He was caught when I was 14, in 1969.)

Which brings me to the features of 21st century life that Twenge didn’t study. What do young people have to look forward to? Global climate change that threatens to end civilization in their lifetimes? A shrinking job market and an hourglass economy? The kind of perverse politics that has brought us President Trump and Brexit?

I remember a goth girl, early Millenial, who said that she became drawn to the goth subculture specifically because of The Day After, which depicted the horrific after-effects of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Made in response to Ronald Reagan’s sabre rattling, intended as a cautionary tale, it was the most watched made-for-TV movie of the 20th century. I seem to recall quite a lot of ink spilled by adults worrying about the goth subculture. Not one of them connected it with the state of the world the kids were growing up into.

#2 Comment By Joan On August 3, 2017 @ 11:51 pm

@Michael: “Why would a third grader need a smart phone?”

It’s the GPS chip. When combined with the Find My Friends app (or its Android equivalent) on the parent’s smart phone, it lets the parent see exactly where the kid’s phone is, and therefore where the kid is, 24/7. Makes the parents feel like they’re actually parenting even when they see the kid face to face so seldom, it’s a wonder that family members even recognize each other.

#3 Comment By Jon S On August 4, 2017 @ 2:18 am

You’re a heck of a Guy.

The arc of my working life (I’m 46) has occurred during a remarkable period. I used to wear suits everyday to work as a recent college graduate, ironically when I could least afford to buy them (usually it meant I got the 2nd hand suits of dead men from the thrift store, which I had to have radically altered). After a year the advent of casual Friday emerged– golf shirts and khakis– what a Godsend! Then we even got access to the internet occasionally. Then golf shirts every day. Then by God the internet every day! This all occurred at the financial institution I worked at within a radical three year swing in the 90s.

That stuffiest of financial institutions began to air out, and more egalitarian staff interactions began to occur. Out of their suits, the Fund Managers were revealed to be pudgy middle aged men with bad posture. A feeling of superiority and confidence began to seep into the younger guys– ex rugby players and lifeguards. We could take these old guys. Heady days.

Today I work from home in my pajamas. I fall asleep to the glow of my phone, and use the bluelight to help me wake up on in the morning. I limit my sons’ screen time to an hour a day. It’s still too much.

My wife has suggested I am suffering from a lack of face to face interaction. I told her I see plenty of faces on text through emojis.

I heard a great podcast recently on my phone, while listening to my phone on headphones while walking the dog in nature, about “Deep Work” on “The Hidden Brain”. It encourages not only designated periods of the day when one does not check phones, email, or-gasp- even social media. I suspect I may be due for this kind of treatment.

Who knows. I may end up asking a fireman to burn all of my electronics for me.

#4 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On August 4, 2017 @ 9:26 am

In conjunction with my response to your “false idol” screed, perhaps the Constitution needs to be amended to “establish” a separation of Church and Technology? In other words, is technology becoming a ‘false idol’? Personally, I believe… excuse me, I KNOW, all idols are false – even in situations where I have been idolized. (Most) humans in general and Americans in particular are ethically and intellectually weak. And instead of ‘studying’ or analyzing issues/topics objectively – with an eye toward survival/self-interest, they enthusiastically consume unhealthy information “engineered” benefit others. Kind of like GMO created foods – Politically or Ideologically Modified Information. With regard to smart phones, or the internet; as one commenter notes, ‘the medium becomes the message’. Ipso Facto, technology becomes “theology”. I becomes the basis for “how” we interact with others, how we raise our children, how we “work” (or in the case of jobs replaced by automation, how we ‘do not work’). This is the real “culture” war, and while Americans were “fighting” over same sex marriage, or who gets to use which bathroom; a couple of computers in Silicon Valley took the first step in “leaving the nest” in terms of their relationship with humans. Hyperbole? Perhaps, but as far as I know, at this point, machines are not effected by hyperbole, which itself can be a plus for us, if we use it judiciously. In closing, consider the reCAPTCHA “I’m not a robot” oath, which humans must swear… to a robot, in order to participate.

#5 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On August 4, 2017 @ 9:34 am

oops, forgot this. the other day I was walking though a restaurant and I saw a table of three men and one woman, all professionally attired, with their heads bowed. I live in (what used to be known as) the Bible belt. I assumed they were praying. They were, to their (individual) smart phones.

#6 Comment By post tenebras lux On August 4, 2017 @ 10:00 am

Minor point: MBTI is not a test, it is an indicator. And, introversion is not in opposition to extraversion. Everyone applies both. MBTI indicates what we prefer, not what we are, and type does not change it just adapts. The internet community has deeply twisted what MBTI is. Read Gifts Differing for foundational basics.

Major point: The technology issue is THE issue of our day, because it is the metaphysics driving politics, sex, etc. When Kant replaced metaphysics with epistemology, he created a vacuum. Technophilia has filled that space and is the drive and driver of “progress” (secular utopia). Technology in itself is neutral, a non-moral object. But we have made technology a Trojan horse filled with seeds of our own social breakdown. We have elected to use technology to erase the very things we think we are using technology for.

Once we went from a word based to an image based society, we then ignored the Word and denied our creation in His image, and replaced it all with our own words and images on a screen so that we could have “knowledge”. I see our present day as one big metaphorical reenactment of the garden temptation, in a technological garden.

#7 Comment By bkh On August 4, 2017 @ 10:55 am

Maybe the admonition from the Bible to not forsake the assembling of yourselves together, especially at the end means “Beware of future technology that makes you less a social being.”

I see it more and more with many up to about 30 years old. They do not do well socially. They would rather hole up and occasionally peek out from an emotional bunker. I am seeing marriages that turn into more like roommate situations because one or both are addicted to some form of technology (not even porn related).

#8 Comment By Karl Heintz On August 5, 2017 @ 2:57 am


Have you ever read E.M. Forrester’s short story THE MACHINE STOPS? I recommend you do. Started re-reading it today – wonderfully condenses some of what later dystopian writers would say. A little snippet

“So when Vashti found her cabin invaded by a rosy finger of light, she was annoyed, and tried to adjust the blind. But the blind flew up altogether, and she saw through the skylight small pink clouds, swaying against a background of blue, and as the sun crept higher, its radiance entered direct, brimming down the wall, like a golden sea. It rose and fell with the air-ship’s motion, just as waves rise and fall, but it advanced steadily, as a tide advances. Unless she was careful, it would strike her face. A spasm of horror shook her and she rang for the attendant. The attendant too was horrified, but she could do nothing; it was not her place to mend the blind. She could only suggest that the lady should change her cabin, which she accordingly prepared to do.”

Millennial Conservative from California

#9 Comment By Margaret On August 5, 2017 @ 8:01 am

I have not read all the comments, so please forgive me if you have discussed this already, but a sentence toward the end of your post here really jumped out at me: “And they are going to have to live this difference out, no matter the cost, making friends and allies from people in other religious traditions who, whatever their differences, ardently wish to hold on to what it means to be truly human, and not a slave to technology and desire.”
I have found Fr. John Behr’s book “Becoming Human: Meditations on Christian Anthropology in Word and Image” to be an excellent type of basic reader on what it means to be truly human and Christian. This book has helped me to realize the difference between Eastern and Western Christian thought on being truly human and having relationship with God in Trinity; thus encouraging me to look at my days with an eye toward what this “practice” of Christianity entails and looks like. I have found several friends and relatives throughout my life who believe in, worship and love Our Lord in like manner in their hearts and in practice. God is good all the time! He is the only One who knows the heart of man (woman and child) and prayer has been, is currently and will be the way to address this “soma”. God bless you for writing, Rod Dreher!

#10 Comment By grumpy realist On August 5, 2017 @ 6:00 pm

Huh. I grew up in the 1960s without our family having a TV and had the same inability-to-talk-about-things with my classmates as you now bewail your little-darling-without-a-smartphone is having from his classmates. On the other hand, I got to run around Europe, memorize Victor Hugo in the original, visit the pyramids and the Sphinx, and watch my father deal with actual moon dust. Which lifted my credibility enough to survive the slings and misfortunes of high school.

Teach your children how to do really cool things, like learning how to manufacture a birchbark canoe, or make 19th-century clothes, and point out that simply snapping pictures of each other and posting them is pretty much a bloody waste of time. Stuff enough skills and experiences into them (including multiple languages) and they won’t care that they don’t have smartphones. Outfit them with a phone that they can text with and disable everything else.

And forget about the Internet of Things. The security issues are so problematic that it’s never going to work. I predict a revolt very soon by humans against Things With Computer Chips in them.

#11 Comment By Robin Phillips On August 5, 2017 @ 10:26 pm

Thank you for posting this, which my wife shared with our church school’s email list.

I followed the link back to the Twenge piece and read it. Wow. The data since 2012 didn’t surprise me, but what shocked me was the magnitude of the seismic shifts, as well as the range of behaviors that are correlated with the rise of the smart-phone. While less teenager rebellion and promiscuity might seem like a good thing (and I guess we should be grateful for small mercies) it is hard to know what to say when these things are arising as a symptom of an emerging culture of passivity, a culture of “tuning-out” and going online.

A couple months ago my teenage son told me that his iPhone had broken so he was unable to take calls. He could only text. I expressed that this must be a hardship for him. “Not really,” he replied. “No one talks on their phones anymore. We just text.” This was news to me, because my thinking was still stuck a few years ago (maybe it was longer ago than that) when it seemed everyone was glued to their phones talking to friends, although I guess if I had stopped to think about it, I would have realized that I haven’t seen much of that recently. People are glued to their phones more than ever before, but they aren’t talking.
A detective in the police force was telling me that this lack of verbal communication is creating real problems in the force. He shared that when they get new recruits for the department, one of the scariest parts of their training is when the recruit has to spend a day at the local mall. They take the trainees to the mall with instructions to go up to strangers and initiate conversation. “People who have made it this far in the police academy panic at the thought of having to initiate face to face conversation” the detective told me, adding “It’s really scary for them because it exercises mental pathways that they have never really had to use. People just don’t talk anymore; all communication occurs via texting.”

I understand from personal experience what these devices do to the brain. When I switched from having a flip phone to having a tablet that had a permanent data connection, I could feel it rewiring my brain over time. Not right at first, but gradually, almost imperceptibly, my attentiveness started to shrivel. (I’ve explain about what happened in an article I wrote for TSM at [6].) Because of my experience, I was incentiveized to look at the research on smartphones and neuroplasticity, and not just smartphones but the internet in general. The main thing that struck me from the research (and this has been underemphasized in the public discourse, even in Twenge’s article) is HOW attentiveness is being eroded. It’s easy to fall into a very simplistic narrative that sees the distracting and attention-eroding potential of these devices being manifested primarily when they are actually being used. But the research is increasingly showing that the hegemony these devices have over our brains is most strongly manifest when we are not actually using these devices at all. This is because the set of expectations that the smartphone encourages (continual stimulation, compulsive multitasking, distractibility, an insurance policy against ever having to be bored or mentally quiet, inability to focus for prolonged periods of time, etc.) is becoming normative in a variety of non-digital contexts. In other words, when you allow the smartphone to rewire your brain, you carry that new brain with you whether you are actually using the device or not. The mental cadences that the smartphone habitualizes is effecting the expectations we bring to our relationships, to our interpersonal conversations and even the expectations we have for what books should do for us. Some of the telltale signs that this is happening is when a person finds themselves

*) unable to participate in a two-way conversation for more than about 20 seconds without interrupting to shift gears if the conversation is perceived to not be moving fast enough;

*) unable to connect principles across multiple contexts;

*) unable to concentrate on conversations that are demanding, and in which arguments or trains of thought are stretched out;

*) uncomfortable not being able to multitask;

*) unable to think in schemas;

*) approaching conversations with a “quickly get to the point” or “cut to the chase” mentality, trying to weed out all perceived irrelevancies;

*) becomes restless reading for very long without checking one’s smartphone;

It should be clear that these types of tendencies are exacerbated by the smartphone, although many people are oblivious to this because these symptoms manifest themselves precisely when one is not actually using the smartphone. I am really wanting to see future work done on how the neurological habits appropriate to the smartphone are effecting wellbeing when the smartphone is not in use, because I think it shows that, as parents, merely limiting smartphone use is not enough.
Anyway, sorry for carrying on for so long. I really appreciate you raising attention about this important issue.

#12 Comment By Gus On August 7, 2017 @ 3:33 pm

“Instagram is better than a damn.”