The great smartphone experiment

If we know so little about the impact of smartphones on people, then why do we trust them so easily to our children?

The great smartphone experiment

Original material by Matthew McDonald

It all happened suddenly. A yellow school bus rumbled along the road, filled with the chatter of schoolchildren. In the next second, the wheel fell into an inconspicuous pothole, and the bus shook violently. Two classes of children suddenly hovered in the air, as if on top of a roller coaster in an amusement park.

A second later, the children fell to the floor. The teachers rushed to the salon to assess the situation, and I – the accompanying parent – spoke to several students from the front of the bus who were less affected. “I'm fine,” said the girl next to me. “But Alice hit the roof.” She showed me her phone. A class of children, most of whom had smartphones, were already using their devices. Seconds passed, but they were already discussing what had happened in a group chat.

A student in high school or high school is likely to have a smartphone with him at all times. In 2016, the average age at which children received their first smartphone was 10, which is two years younger than the 2014 figure. The average child spends about an hour a day on a smartphone (at first), then this figure rises to three hours a day as they reach adolescence.

The great smartphone experiment

Raising children has never been an easy task. But the smartphone is unique in comparison to other modern threats that provoke children's anxiety (television, computer games, building close relationships, junk food). Only a smartphone was able to penetrate so firmly into our lives. He occupies a privileged place, is constantly next to us, in a purse or pocket. This positioning gives him the ability to influence almost every activity and interaction we go through.

This will not be followed by a vicious tirade about how smartphones are changing the lives of young people, taking away hours of free time and shifting the focus from their recently favorite activities, as well as shortening the duration of attention. In fact, scientific research about the use of smartphones from an early age is still far from fixed and unconditional. Why is that?

The first one iPhone was released in 2007. If you gave iPhone after its release as an expensive gift to the class of twelve-year-old schoolchildren, then even twelve years later you would have extremely scarce information. Precise conclusions about the long-term effect cannot be evaluated until larger studies are available that track hundreds of children who have used smartphones from an early age.

But this did not stop the flow of speculation.

Researchers have suggested that smartphones lead to obesity (by reducing the user's physical activity), suppress social skills (replacing face-to-face communication with endless chatting), and the blue glow of the smartphone screen can affect our sleep patterns and cognitive performance.

The great smartphone experiment

Smartphone use can also lead to psychological changes. Similar to how our eyes suffered the epidemic of myopia after our civilization switched to reading and other types of activity associated with the near field of vision, hours hunched over the screen of a tiny mobile device will change the posture of future generations. But each of these arguments is only a hypothesis, which can only be confirmed by an interim study after at least several years of study. We just don't know the real answers.

Of course, there are also alarm bells. Studies that study adults have found that simply having a smartphone on a desk next to you is enough to degrade performance on any task that requires focus. The effect can be even worse for the adolescent brain, which is already in the process of intense internal changes. Indeed, changes in the adolescent brain are second in complexity only to the creation of neural connections in early childhood.

The great smartphone experiment

What's more alarming is the results of a 2017 study that found an increase in depression symptoms in adolescents. Of the half a million teens, those who spent more time with their smartphones and used social media for longer were more likely to feel unhappy and suffered from low self-esteem. The unexpected growth began in 2012, when most teenagers first got smartphones.

Such studies can only speak of a supposed relationship. Despite the flashy headlines, they prove nothing. But they should encourage us to ask questions about whether this unaccountable love for wonderful handheld computers puts our children at risk.

One of the reasons for this may be the fact that we have no other choice. Tech companies have beaten us. They have created smartphone-based solutions for everyday activities (navigation, keeping in touch with friends, taking photos, finding answers to questions), and they are orders of magnitude better than those we used before our lives were subordinated to smartphones.

The great smartphone experiment

Having a smartphone also correlates with parental concern for children's newfound independence. He offers the option to put straws when the child starts walking alone and going to parties without parental control. Security is a powerful totem. And many families tacitly appreciate the ability of phones to shield children from other unfavorable activities. After all, you don't have to worry about your kids skating on a busy highway with a gang of desperate friends as long as they're safe on the other side of the Snapchat screen.

Smartphones also have powerful socioeconomic meaning. Few parents are 'immune' to the silent competition of families for wealth and the desire to show that their child is better than others, or at least as good. Life without a smartphone for 12 years looks difficult and almost impossible for adolescents, which means that the child will be deleted from the entire social world of his peers, in which they exchange messages, pictures and discuss their plans. Add to this the natural desire of fast-growing children to adopt the habits of the adults around them, and you can see why the idea of ​​having a smartphone in a child is seductive for the whole family. But warnings to be more careful with smartphones sometimes come from the most unexpected sources, including from major technology players.

The great smartphone experiment

In 2017, Bill Gates made headlines after stating that he would not allow children to have smartphones under 14. Steve Jobs restricted the use of iPad to his children after its launch. Tristan Harris, a former ethicist at Google, believes smartphones are designed to grab the attention of children and keep it forever. But the most compelling smartphone skeptic is Chamat Palihapitiya, former VP of User Growth Facebook. He believes that social media is tearing apart the fabric of society by replacing important interactions with short-term feedback loops based on hearts, likes, and thumbs up, and does not allow children to participate.

But perhaps the most important opinions are the voices of the children themselves. The clear majority of teens with smartphones (90% between 13 and 17 years old, according to a Pew Research study) say online life is their generation's problem, and 60% see it as a serious problem. They may need our help. One detail that stands out in the study mentioned concerns how the adolescent's problems reflect those of adults. Children describe how a smartphone distracts them from school activities, it distracts parents from work. And just as parents worry about how much time their children spend staring at screens, teenagers also describe parents who are too keen on the smartphone, preferring it to real conversations. Perhaps this shows that they, like us, are sometimes powerless and cannot disconnect from the wonders of the digital outlet. Or it means that parental use of a smartphone may have a more accentuated impact on children's habits than we think.

Families with clear rules for smartphones will be able to cope with this endless temptation of digital oblivion. For example, some homes are setting up so-called 'family device stations' where gadgets stay charged overnight and are not at hand, and such families can be happier. But one thing is clear: we have already plunged headlong into a big experiment with smartphones. The consequences are unknown. And one day, in the distant future, it is our children who will describe the final results.

Original material by Matthew McDonald

Every time I read materials on this topic, I think about how difficult it will be for the half-analog generation to convey their position to the digital generation, which already has completely different values ​​and attitudes. For them, network life is an integral part of the world and society, just as televisions once became for us. Probably, this time the scale is just bigger.

I believe that children's interaction with gadgets should be built on trust, but still with clear rules. Otherwise, as a result, the society will teach gadget ethics lessons, which the child will not really like. But completely limiting is not an option. It will be even more difficult for a teenager who is torn out of the contact group. It is necessary to teach and learn to control and report on a particular scenario of using devices in the context of real interaction or outside of it. Otherwise, technical progress will catch up and surpass us.

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