Are SmartPhones destroying our children?

Apr 06, 2024

I recently read ‘Stolen Focus’ by Johann Hari which was a shocking wake up call on how SmartPhones and Social Media were making us stupider.

I have just read a summary of  ‘The Anxious Generation’ by Jonathan Haidt (being published on 26 March) which shows the catastrophic effect these are having on the teenage mind. In particular:
Smartphone addiction has created an unprecedented explosion of mental illness, especially for the generation that entered teenage years when the devices became ubiquitous

We overestimate risks in the real world, even though risks to children have dropped steeply since the 1990’s causing parents to be unduly cautious about allowing children to play. Too panicky at street level, parents have simultaneously been too lax about the real risks intrinsic to teen life in the virtual world.

The contrast between a “play-based childhood” (in decline) and “phone-based childhood” (on the rise). “Play is the work of childhood,” Haidt argues, “and all young mammals have the same job: wire up your brain by playing vigorously and often.” Play is a forum for making mistakes (without high consequence) and learning to connect. Without making mistakes in an unstructured environment, we fail to develop antifragility. Haidt draws an analogy with a closed artificial ecosystem created in the 1980s. The designers discovered that many trees grew fast, only to fall over before maturity. What was missing? Wind. Under the stress of wind, tree roots have to grow stronger and wood cells have to develop extra hardness, an altered state known as “stress wood”. “Stress wood is a perfect metaphor for children,” Haidt concludes.

“How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” wondered Sean Parker, a former president of Facebook, in 2017. Social media firms learned to manipulate teenagers’ inattentiveness while simultaneously co-opting their inbuilt desire to compare themselves to others (particularly bad for the mental health of teenage girls).

Haidt cites Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 short story “Harrison Bergeron”, which envisages an American dystopia in which being excellent at anything (and therefore un-egalitarian) has been made illegal. The preferred weapon of “handicapping” exceptionally bright people is to make them wear an earpiece which buzzes roughly every 20 seconds to sabotage sustained concentration. Stopping attention is the lever by which intelligence can be flattened.

Social media and phone addiction among teens achieves all this and more. The teenage brain – when abandoned to social media’s pincer movement of self-projected narcissism and ceaseless superficial content – is blocked from developing real-world resilience and coping strategies.

The world’s brightest and best have effectively been bought by firms whose purpose is to perfect techniques that induce people to waste their lives hunched over a glass rectangle. They take life and turn it into lumpen data fodder.