Teens & Screens: Are SmartPhones Making Us Dumber?

March 27, 2018

Born in 1966, my age makes me one of the first members of Generation X. My kids are Millenials, born near the end of Generation Y. Given that, it's no surprise that the role of technology in our respective formative years could not be more different. As a teen, many of my after-school hours were spent tethered to a spiraled phone cord stretched to its limit - so I could gab with my pals in the privacy of the kitchen pantry. Contrast that with Daughter's high school years. Peeking into her room to check in, I would find her Face-Timing with a friend - a friend who was physically sitting next to her. What's wrong with this picture?

 

My kids have never known a time when surfing the Net and gazing at screens wasn't the norm. It's deeply troubling that when we hear the term "Face-Time", the first thing that comes to mind is an app.

 

Yet lately it is clear that I, too, have been bewitched by my iPhone. For example, I started playing the app 1010 when I'm in the passenger seat, in order to avoid a heart-attack in response to Husband's habitual tailgating. (What you can't see can't freak you out). Then I would open the app to kill time in the checkout line. When Husband complained that I was playing the game during dinner conversation, I knew I had a problem. Ironically, I know this for sure because I googled iPhone addiction - on my phone - and took this online quiz

 

In that respect my kids and I share membership in a generation undefined by year of birth. That would be Generation C, where "C" stands for "Connection." Yes, it's a thing. Call me a grumpy Gen X-er, but I still believe the primary definition of "connection" should have nothing to do with WiFi.

 

Notice I specified "primary". That's because the "C" also stands for some good stuff, like Curation, Creation, Consumer and Community. But a strength overused becomes a weakness. Let's take a look at each one's strong suits and weak spots:

 

CONNECTION

 

Strengths:

Hard to argue with this one. Texting and social media make it easy to stay in touch. In addition to enabling contact with other humans near and far, our phones offer a convenient way to access information on the go.

 

Weaknesses:

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld jokes that texting is just another way to say "I don't really want to talk to you." Funny, but only because it's true. Then there's the danger of addiction to "likes". We'd rather tap a thumb's up than actually take the time to speak to the person. Which brings up the scourge of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Studies show that trolling FaceBook can cause depression and low self-esteem, presumably because we are seeing everyone's public face - and feeling "less-than" by comparison. In this Age of Virtual Reality, we forget that what we're seeing is everyone's highlight reel. The behind-the-scenes action rarely makes anyone's feed. No wonder plastic surgeons are now reporting that growing numbers of prospective patients show up for consults inspired by Selfies they have edited with Snapchat filters. These filters can make eyes appear larger, skin smoother and lips fuller. Apparently some people would rather be their Virtual Self. Literally.

 

CURATION

 

Strengths: 

This one basically refers to having lots of options and therefore, the opportunity to cherry-pick the most relevant ones. Way back when, research meant a trip to the library where often the only resource was a dusty, out-dated Encyclopedia Britannica. Now with a few taps on a touchscreen we can access an endless array of up-to-the-minute info from the palm of our hand.

 

Weaknesses:

 Endless can be overwhelming. And not every website is accurate or reliable. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. Info overload also breeds temptation. You might begin surfing with the intention of researching drug interactions for that new Rx prescribed by your doc, for example, and two hours later realize you've been sucked into one of the infinite black holes in Cyberspace. How else to explain the millions of hits for every YouTube cat video?

 

CREATION

 

Strengths:

It's nothing short of astounding that a rectangular piece of plastic, glass and circuitry the size of a deck of cards gives us the ability to indulge our creativity in ways great and small. Embellishing texts with emojis. Snapping and editing photographs. Creating websites. Furthering political movements, or offering support for those in need. Indeed, I'm writing this blog post on my iPhone 8+, and will post it through an app on my phone as well.

 

Weaknesses:

A scenario was presented to me by one of the teens I counsel in my practice as a psychotherapist. Child Who Shall Remain Anonymous returns home for Thanksgiving Break freshman year of college. "Mom, I didn't have time to keep up with my online Geology course and I have to submit the last 18 unit tests by the end of the break. Help. Me." Apparently because it was a gen-ed credit that had nothing to do with Client's major, Parent aided and abbetted in some "creative" test-taking: One screen open to unit tests, another on quizlet.com, "Simple Tools for Learning Anything." (We use the term "learning" lightly here.) Long story short, 18 units completed in less than 90 minutes. So even though Child got an "A" in Geology 101, when it comes to rocks, this kid is still dumb as one.

 

CONSUMER

 

Strengths:

Can you say amazon.com? That said, "Consumer" encompasses more than shopping for stuff in your jammies from the comforts of home. Phones also help us consume information by the megabyte. Of course the benefit here is a free exchange of ideas at a rate never seen before.

 

Weaknesses:

Sometimes, info from the Net is nefarious. Some examples: The FBI revealed that the Kyrgyz brothers responsible for the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing learned how to construct the deadly devices via the Internet. ISIL radicalizes vulnerable individuals online, recruiting them to perpetrate acts of terrorism. We must also consider recent revelations about Cambridge Analytica; the data analytics firm allegedly harvested information from FaceBook pages to influence the 2016 presidential election. From annoying pop-up ads targeting user's online habits, to who will be the next leader of the free world, Cyberspace has destroyed any expectation of privacy. Personal safety and privacy are not the only casualties; the environment suffers as well. Think how much the size of your carbon footprint grows when the FedEx driver shows up on your doorstep every other day. "Free 2-Day Shipping" is hard to resist. But still.

 

COMMUNITY

 

Strengths:

The diameter of our social circles has grown exponentially, courtesy of the Internet. It's easier than ever to stay in touch. Back in the day, staying connected

 to friends from every life stage was costly (Remember paying for long-distance calls?), or inconvenient (It's called snail mail for a reason). FaceBook, Snapchat, Instagram and WhatsApp give us free access in real time to anyone and everyone from all domains: family, elementary school chums, summer camp buddies and professional colleagues. The Web also allows us to get involved in meaningful ways with organizations promoting social activism. Ever heard of #MeToo or #NeverAgain? And it's increasingly common for Lonely Hearts to meet their match electronically on dating apps like, well, match.com.

 

Weaknesses:

At the same time, "Oh what a tangled Web we weave" now has an extra layer of meaning that Sir Walter Scott could never have imagined when he penned those words centuries ago. Forgoing face-to-face communication in favor of typing and tapping robs us of the nuances of body language, facial expression and voice modulation that are so vital to truly understanding what another person means to share. There's even a word for it: "phubbing".

 

Plus, the relative anonymity of the electronic community also has given rise to Cyberbullying and docking, as well as the proliferation of terrorism and child pornography, among other dangers. On a lesser scale, is there any doubt that texting has created deficits in spelling, grammar and basic writing skills? Hooked on Phone-ics, indeed.

 

All of which leaves me wondering, do the pros of SmartPhones outweigh the cons? Pixar may have given us the answer in its 2009 blockbuster WALL-E.

 

Presciently, the film was released just one year after Apple introduced the first-generation iPhone.

 

WALL-E's story takes place hundreds of years in the future, at a time when our planet has been rendered uninhabitable due to pollution. The human race has been exiled to a space station, where people spend their days on floating recliners, sipping Slurpees, and mesmerized by screens that hover before their eyes. As a result they have grown obese to the extent that atrophied bones no longer support their weight. There they await a signal from one little robot left behind on Earth, the title character WALL-E, whose task is to identify signs that the planet has regenerated so they can safely return home.

 

I have hope that Pixar's animated allegory is not our destiny. Recently my kids - and growing numbers of the teens who come to me for mental health counseling - are telling me they prefer talking and hanging out to texting. More to the point: it is a significant example that the kids of Parkland - mobilized to the cause of gun control following the senseless slaughter last month of 17 innocents at their high school - used social media to inspire support. For them, the Internet was a means to an end, with the end-game being living, breathing support for the March for Our Lives that took place last Saturday in our nation's capitol and more than 800 sister marches the world over. All told, more than 1 million people physically gathered together, arm-in-arm and face-to-face, with the common goal of making our world safer and better for generations to come. These individuals are our real-life WALL-E's.

 

Back to the central question: Have our SmartPhones made us dumber? That remains to be seen. We hold the fate of the world in the palms of our hands. Let's choose wisely when we consider how we will answer the call.

 

 

"You must be the filter you wish to see in the world." - based on a quote by Mahatma Gandhi

 

 

 

 

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