Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Smartphone Menace

What teachers are dealing with -- and what tech exec parents know

In Charlottesville, I found myself having a lunch conversation one day with some folks who are involved in Christian education at the elementary and secondary level. They were talking about the challenges they face today. One of the biggest is the ubiquity of smartphones in the hands of kids. Parents think nothing of giving them to their children, the educators said, and many kids have virtually unlimited access to the Internet. There’s the “older brother porn problem” in which younger kids get turned on to porn by watching it on an older sibling’s smartphone. And there’s the problem of “After School App,” an anonymous bulletin board service designed for high schoolers, one that allows them to gang up on other kids in their class and trash them mercilessly.

Parents, I was told, are typically no help at all. They don’t want their kids to be out of step with their friends, so they give kids smartphones, which is a technology the kids aren’t emotionally prepared to use. There’s all kinds of bullying, and accessing porn — but parents don’t seem to want to know about it because they don’t want to have to tell their kids no.

One of the educators at the table added that the problem is not limited to the content accessed through the phones, but to the way using these devices is radically distorting the way kids communicate with each other, or fail to. Even if the kids only accessed benign content, and did not use social media to attack each other, they nevertheless spend enormous amounts of time on their smartphones, ignoring everyone around them. Some of them have trouble sustaining an actual conversation for more than a few minutes. All of them are losing the habits of common courtesy that has since forever been how human beings in social situations treat each other.

Listening to this, I thought about the time we had a dinner party at which the youngest guest at the table, a woman of about 24, pulled out her smartphone and began checking her mail. I thought perhaps she was expecting an urgent message; why else would someone drop out of the conversation and turn to her iPhone at the dinner table. But no, that’s exactly what she was doing. She sat in her seat ignoring everyone else at the table for a good 10 minutes, until, it seemed, the conversation topic turned to something that interested her. It was appallingly rude. But that’s how kids are today.

Writing in the New York Review of Books, Jacob Weisberg surveys recent volumes devoted to studying how we use this technology. The title says it all: “We Are Hopelessly Hooked”. Excerpts:

Americans spend an average of five and a half hours a day with digital media, more than half of that time on mobile devices, according to the research firm eMarketer. Among some groups, the numbers range much higher. In one recent survey, female students at Baylor University reported using their cell phones an average of ten hours a day. Three quarters of eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds say that they reach for their phones immediately upon waking up in the morning. Once out of bed, we check our phones 221 times a day—an average of every 4.3 minutes—according to a UK study. This number actually may be too low, since people tend to underestimate their own mobile usage. In a 2015 Gallup survey, 61 percent of people said they checked their phones less frequently than others they knew.

Our transformation into device people has happened with unprecedented suddenness. The first touchscreen-operated iPhones went on sale in June 2007, followed by the first Android-powered phones the following year. Smartphones went from 10 percent to 40 percent market penetration faster than any other consumer technology in history. In the United States, adoption hit 50 percent only three years ago. Yet today, not carrying a smartphone indicates eccentricity, social marginalization, or old age.

What does it mean to shift overnight from a society in which people walk down the street looking around to one in which people walk down the street looking at machines?


It is the troubling aspects of social and mobile media that Sherry Turkle attends to in her wise and observant new book, Reclaiming Conversation. A clinical psychologist and sociologist who teaches at MIT, Turkle is by no means antitechnology. But after a career examining relations between people and computers, she blends her description with advocacy. She presents a powerful case that a new communication revolution is degrading the quality of human relationships—with family and friends, as well as colleagues and romantic partners. The picture she paints is both familiar and heartbreaking: parents who are constantly distracted on the playground and at the dinner table; children who are frustrated that they can’t get their parents’ undivided attention; gatherings where friends who are present vie for attention with virtual friends; classrooms where professors gaze out at a sea of semiengaged multitaskers; and a dating culture in which infinite choice undermines the ability to make emotional commitments.

Turkle finds the roots of the problem in the failure of young people absorbed in their devices to develop fully independent selves, a topic she began to explore in Alone Together (2011). In that book, she examined the way interaction with robotic toys and “always on” connections affect adolescent development. She argued that phones and texting disrupt the ability to separate from one’s parents, and raise other obstacles to adulthood. Curating a Facebook profile alters the presentation of self. Absorption in a gaming avatar can become a flight from the difficulties of real life. Young people face new anxieties around the loss of privacy and the persistence of online data.

In her new book, she expresses a version of those concerns that is as much philosophic as psychiatric. Because they aren’t learning how to be alone, she contends, young people are losing their ability to empathize. “It’s the capacity for solitude that allows you to reach out to others and see them as separate and independent,” Turkle writes. Without an ability to look inward, those locked into the virtual worlds of social media develop a sensibility of “I share, therefore I am,” crafting their identities for others. Continuous digital performance leaves teenagers experiencing what ought to be the satisfactions of solitude only as “disconnection anxiety.”

As in her earlier work, Turkle considers this loss of empathy as both a clinician and an ethnographer. She culls from hundreds of interviews she has done since 2008, the first year many high school and college students became armed with smartphones. Unhappy teachers at one private middle school in upstate New York describe students who don’t make eye contact or respond to body language, who have trouble listening and talking to teachers, and can’t see things from another’s point of view, recognize when they’ve hurt someone, or form friendships based on trust. “It is as though they all have some signs of being on an Asperger’s spectrum,” one teacher tells her. Turkle even seeks to quantify the damage, repeatedly citing a study that shows a 40 percent decline in empathy among college students over the past twenty years as measured by standard psychological tests.

One more thing, about how young people communicate:

One group of students explains that when they get together physically, they “layer” online conversations on top of face-to-face ones, with people who are in the same room.

It sounds insane, doesn’t it? But I have personally seen children with smartphones sitting in the same room, texting or Instagramming each other, not for the novelty of it, but because that’s just how they roll.

Read the whole thing. There’s a discussion, based on another book, about how app designers use research from psychology and other disciplines to maximize the addictiveness of their apps. “But in the main, his book reads like one of those tobacco industry documents about manipulating nicotine levels in cigarettes.”

In the several separate conversations I’ve had about this phenomenon in Charlottesville, someone has said a version of, “You know, Steve Jobs wouldn’t let his kids use smartphones.” I wondered if it was an urban legend. But no, it’s true. Excerpts:

“So, your kids must love the iPad?” I asked Mr. Jobs, trying to change the subject. The company’s first tablet was just hitting the shelves. “They haven’t used it,” he told me. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”

More from that same 2010 New York Times article:

Since then, I’ve met a number of technology chief executives and venture capitalists who say similar things: they strictly limit their children’s screen time, often banning all gadgets on school nights, and allocating ascetic time limits on weekends.

I was perplexed by this parenting style. After all, most parents seem to take the opposite approach, letting their children bathe in the glow of tablets, smartphones and computers, day and night.

Yet these tech C.E.O.’s seem to know something that the rest of us don’t.

Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and now chief executive of 3D Robotics, a drone maker, has instituted time limits and parental controls on every device in his home. “My kids accuse me and my wife of being fascists and overly concerned about tech, and they say that none of their friends have the same rules,” he said of his five children, 6 to 17. “That’s because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand. I’ve seen it in myself, I don’t want to see that happen to my kids.”

The dangers he is referring to include exposure to harmful content like pornography, bullying from other kids, and perhaps worse of all, becoming addicted to their devices, just like their parents.


So how do tech moms and dads determine the proper boundary for their children? In general, it is set by age.

Children under 10 seem to be most susceptible to becoming addicted, so these parents draw the line at not allowing any gadgets during the week. On weekends, there are limits of 30 minutes to two hours on iPad and smartphone use. And 10- to 14-year-olds are allowed to use computers on school nights, but only for homework.

“We have a strict no screen time during the week rule for our kids,” said Lesley Gold, founder and chief executive of the SutherlandGold Group, a tech media relations and analytics company. “But you have to make allowances as they get older and need a computer for school.”

Some parents also forbid teenagers from using social networks, except for services like Snapchat, which deletes messages after they have been sent. This way they don’t have to worry about saying something online that will haunt them later in life, one executive told me.

Although some non-tech parents I know give smartphones to children as young as 8, many who work in tech wait until their child is 14. While these teenagers can make calls and text, they are not given a data plan until 16. But there is one rule that is universal among the tech parents I polled.

“This is rule No. 1: There are no screens in the bedroom. Period. Ever,” Mr. Anderson said.

Read the whole thing.  These are the adults in this world who know more about tech and these devices and media than anybody else. And they shield their children from it. Here’s a comment to the story that’s chilling:


September 12, 2014

I was addicted to Facebook at a young age. I was addicted to TV. After losing my parents and having to go out on my own, I discovered how technology can sometimes corrupt who you are when you don’t set limits on yourself. I would stay up till 3 or 4 AM on these sites. All of the typical life aspects were affected by my behavior. You start comparing yourself to people. You get depressed.

Now, I don’t even own a TV, have no accounts on any social media website. There a couple of apps on my phone but not one single game or distraction. All the interaction I have with friends is by visiting them and I stay in touch with the outside world through my new found joy of reading news and books. I wish I could have discovered this at an earlier age but I’m glad I did even now. Some people just seem to let themselves get trapped and have no way out.

My wife and I are already pretty strict about these devices with our kids. Having listened to what teachers, school administrators, and others who see first-hand what these technologies are doing to students, and having read these articles sitting in the airport waiting for my flight out of Charlottesville, I resolved that we are going to have to be even stricter. Our little girl came home from a friend’s house down the street nearly in tears the other day because she didn’t have an electronic device (we won’t let her leave the house with one), and her friends did. They were playing with their devices. My kid told her friends that she didn’t have a device, so she was going to have to go home. The other kids never once looked up or acknowledged that she was leaving. They were mesmerized. Our kids are going to suffer like that socially, but this weekend, after hearing testimonials from teachers and others who deal with the consequences of what these technologies are doing to individuals and to the social environment of teenagers, I don’t care. It’s too important to protect them while they are developing, and prevent them from becoming narcissists and self-induced autists.

I would like to hear from teachers and school administrators in this blog’s readership on this topic. What are you seeing? What are you dealing with?