The four-year-old riding in the elevator with her mom was coming from a party and covered with glitter. Apparently she’d been asking her mom about the sparkly stuff, because as I entered, the mom had just googled it on her smartphone and was delivering a tidy mini-lecture on the history, science, and cultural significance of glitter. I listened, and twenty seconds later, I left the elevator edified, via a small packet of information zapped up on the device Apple inaugurated a decade ago this fall.
Such casual enrichments testify daily to the fathomless powers of information and communication that smartphones bring to our literal fingertips at all times. That power manifests itself not only in small-bore moments like the one I observed in the elevator, but in mass collective actions. Take the current remarkable toppling of powerful men for sexual harassment. This viral phenomenon reflects a great deal of pent-up torment suffered by women worldwide. And it’s crystal clear that social media have been crucial—a simple hashtag gets launched on Twitter, and a global movement for social justice is unleashed.
I offer these tributes as a necessary concession. I’m a smartphone refusenik, and a vehement one at that. Anyone attempting to stake out an oppositional stance on a transformative technology, however, has to begin by acknowledging the upside of that technology—which, with the smartphone, is both impressive and ubiquitous. Yet what about the downside? What are we giving up in exchange for what we’re getting? Hardly a day passes without my thinking that what I have elsewhere called “the smartphone bargain” is a bad deal, even a calamitous one. (And I have said so here and here and here.)
Readers of my jeremiads on this topic have responded with three interconnected points: 1) technological change is irreversible, so get used to it; 2) the skeptic takes the innovations of the past for granted while complaining about the disruptions of the present, which makes his critique incoherent; and 3) all major technological innovations are disruptive. Taken together, these arguments suggest that in opposing a powerful technological innovation, you’re being blinkered, hypocritical or just plain foolish—the hapless neo-Luddite, ignoring the matrix of technological innovations over the last 500 years that created the “normal” to which he is clinging. We wouldn’t want to go back to the fifteenth century, would we?
Of course not; and no one, least of all yours truly, is lamenting the widespread loss of, say, horse-shoeing skills, or celestial navigation—that whole basket of skills made obsolete by technological innovations. But some new technologies are more disruptive than others—some way more disruptive. And by disruptive I mean something quite specific: transformational with respect not just to human work, but to the human being, in fundamental social, personal and even cognitive categories. An automatic dishwasher is one of many labor-saving devices that provide a nifty convenience without being particularly transformative of us, of how we are with each other and with ourselves. Yet the smartphone revolution is doing precisely that. That’s why it’s a revolution, and not merely a helpful gadget.
Just how transformative is the focus of several recent articles and reports. Last month a cover story in the New York Times Magazine article asked, “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering from Severe Anxiety?,” and quickly zeroed in on a prime culprit: social media. I was not surprised to hear teenagers express a worried preoccupation with how they’re being presented and judged by their peers out there in cyberworld. My wife is a middle-school counselor, and almost every day she tells me how drastically social media amplify the fraught dynamic of exclusion and judgment that is so often a pervasively excruciating force in adolescence. (Girls seem to be especially hard hit.)
But even more interesting to me was the comment, by the clinical director of an Oregon mental-health institute specializing in anxiety, that smartphones give teens what he called the “illusion of control and certainty,” enabling them to “manage the environments” of daily life. “Teens will go places if they feel like they know everything that will happen, if they know everyone who will be there, if they can see who’s checked in online,” he said. “But life doesn’t always come with that kind of certainty, and they’re never practicing the skill of rolling with the punches, of walking into an unknown or awkward social situation and learning that they can survive it.” They’re being disabled, in other words, for the normal vicissitudes and unpredictability of life. That “skill of rolling with the punches,” also known as resilience, or grit, represents a value our culture purports to cherish. Yet even as we extol it, the technology we rely on is undermining it.
Further perspective comes in an Atlantic article bluntly titled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”, by Jean M. Twenge, a San Diego State University psychologist who researches adolescent mental health. Twenge christens the cohort of children born between 1995 and 2012 “iGen,” to denote a generation “shaped by the smartphone and the rise of social media.” Noting that three out of four American teens currently owns an iPhone, she asserts that “the impact of these devices has not been fully appreciated, and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans.” She continues:
The smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.
And what, in Twenge’s view, are the hallmarks of life lived on the smartphone? An anxious timidity. A steep decline in dating and in the capacity for unmediated intimacy. Higher rates of loneliness and of depression. Difficulty sleeping. A homebody inclination that can verge on agoraphobia—since all social life can be “managed” via the phone, from one’s room. iGen kids work less, go out less, hang out less with friends, play fewer sports, and spend way less time outdoors. “So what are they doing with all that time?” Twenge asks. “They are on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed.” Interviewing one teen about what she did all summer, she learns that the girl spent much of it keeping up with friends via text and Snapchat. “I’ve been on my phone more than I’ve been with actual people,” she said. “My bed has, like, an imprint of my body.”