Smarter Phones, Dumber People

The news was slow and the weather stormy over most of the weekend, which gave us a chance to ponder some of the big-picture think pieces in the high-brow media. For the past 160 years Atlantic Magazine has been among the most high-brow of them, as well as one of the most reliable sources of ponderable big-picture think pieces, and they offered up an excellent essay about the modern age of the “smart phone” and its dire effects on its youngest generation.
It’s a lengthy and complicated article, but even if you’re not rained in and there’s another bombshell Russian story on the front page we highly recommend it. The author has been spent the past 25 years studying how Americans differ from generation to generation, with his research stretching from the 1930s to the present, and he reports on an anomalous change in the usual ebb-and-flow of cultural shifts that have occurred since 2012. That was the first year that a majority of Americans owned “smart phones,” the author notes, and when “I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states.”
The author also posits there’s a causal connection between these two things, and based on our more anecdotal evidence we think he’s on to something. He briefly and glumly summarizes all the widely-observed ways that “smart phones” have altered the daily lives of all generations — a more complete assessment would require shelves of upcoming social science dissertations and satirical novels — but finds his most alarming data among the youngest generation that never knew what life was like before the damned things. What the author calls the “Gen-I” generation reports markedly higher levels of lack of social interaction, loneliness, depression, and suicide, and links these to hours spent on texting, social media, and other time “on screen.” We’re short at the moment on very young friends, as all of our friends’ kids are all grown up but haven’t yet had kids that are even old enough for “smart phones,” and we’re proudly among the dwindling minority of Americans who still don’t own one of the damned things, but we’re not surprised by the author’s findings.
At this point we’re tempted to take some time off and write a satirical novel of our own about “smart phones,” so outraged are we with the way the damned things have made people so damned dumb. When we’re out arguing politics with our friends at the local hipster dives we always notice the attractive young couples sitting across a booth from one another and staring into their “smart phones” rather than into the other’s eyes. A conspicuous number of our similarly-aged friends lately seem frustratingly forgetful, and instead of an unexercised and flabby memory rely on their “smart phones” to tell them the name of the guy that they’re talking about. By now all of the great adventures tales would have to be re-written if they were up-dated to an age when the hero could ask the palm-sized device in his pocket for an answer, we have friends who can’t get from one place in Wichita, Kansas, to another without help from a “smart phone” global positioning system, and we don’t count it all as progress.
Shudder to think, then, what it’s like for those poor kids who can’t remember the good old analog age of actual rather than virtual reality. The Atlantic’s highbrow correspondent also provides the unsurprising and commonsensical data that children who spend less time “on screen” and more time social interactions with other children in extra-curricular activities and religious services and sports and local playgrounds, and spent their other hours with either family or books, were less likely to be lonely, depressed, or suicidal. The real world is a daunting place, but people there seem happier than the ones in the virtual world.
All the data shows the younger folks tend not to date, in the traditional sense of the term, and although that’s had a salutary effect on the teen pregnancy rates we think it’s a mixed blessing. The Atlantic reports that teens are also postponing getting a driver’s license, which would have been unimaginable to our teenaged selves, or any previous generation of red-blooded Americans, and spending way too much time in their bedrooms and worrying that the picture they posted on Instragam won’t get a self-affirming number of “likes.” The youngest of them are now tethered by a global positioning system every hour of the day and every day of the week to their parents, too, and we shudder again to think of what that must be like. We were blessed with diligently watchful parents, but we’re sure they won’t mind us saying that we’re also grateful that the technology of the time didn’t preclude those occasional moments when we were blissfully free to act according to our own better judgement. Every previous generation, after all, had those moments.
This might seem yet another old folks’ rant against modernity, but we’ve got some state-of-the-art social science data from such a highbrow publication as Atlantic to back it up, and we think there’s something afoot that’s even more significant than the next presidential “tweet.” We finally got an old-fashioned “flip phone” a while back to be constant communication with our still-watchful folks, who are now old enough to require our watchfulness, and we have to admit we’re taking up some of your own “on-screen” time, so we can’t deny that some progress has been made. Every generation has also lost something dear to every technological revolution, though, and we hope that the next one will still know something of a real-life and primal childhood.

— Bud Norman

One response

  1. I think that whenever something changes, like really, really changes, people are going to be counting cons and stuff. Yes, there are side-effects to all the technology around us, not only smartphones. And, yes, contradictory as it seems, social media isolates us. But there are obvious benefits to this as well. It’s all in how you use it.

    I am sure that when people invented gunpowder there were some who thoughts everyone was going to kill everyone else.

    Most inventions are double edged swords.

    On a final note, I’d say that the dumbing-down of society began with the invention of the TV. It all kind of went downhill, for there is not reason but to obsessively search for entertainment.

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