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You Have Permission to Be a Smartphone Skeptic

Claiming the teenage mental health crisis must be attributed to something other than personal technology forecloses an important conversation.
April 27, 2023
You Have Permission to Be a Smartphone Skeptic
(Photo by Adam Berry/Redferns)

Recently, the news that minor British celebrity Sophie Winkelman had pulled her children out of a posh school because students there were going to be issued iPads occasioned the brief return of one of my favorite discursive topics—are the kids all right?—in one of my least-favorite variations: why shouldn’t each of them have a smartphone and tablet?

Whenever this subject arises, there are more or less two camps. One camp says yes, the kids are fine; complaints about screen time merely conceal a desire to punish hard-working parents for marginally benefiting from climbing luxury standards, provide examples of the moral panic occasioned by all new technologies, or mistakenly blame screens for ill effects caused by the general political situation.

No, says the other camp, led by Jonathan Haidt; the kids are not all right, their devices are partly to blame, and here are the studies showing why.

As useful as the statistical correlations in the detractors’ learned studies are, they are not conclusive in either direction, and we should not wait for the replication crisis in the social sciences to resolve itself before we consider the question of whether the naysayers are on to something. And normal powers of observation and imagination should be sufficient to make us at least wary of smartphones.

These powerful instruments represent a technological advance on par with that of the power loom or the automobile. The achievement can be difficult to properly appreciate because instead of exerting power over physical processes and raw materials, they operate on social processes and the human psyche: They are designed to maximize attention, to make it as difficult as possible to look away. Their success can be measured by the fact that they have transformed the qualitative experience of existing in the world. They give a person’s sociality the appearance and feeling of a theoretically endless open network, while in reality, algorithms quietly sort users into ideological, aesthetic, memetic cattle chutes of content.

Importantly, the process by which smartphones change us requires no agency or judgment on the part of a teen user, and yet that process is designed to provide what feels like a perfectly natural, inevitable, and complete experience of the world. Smartphones offer a tactile portal to a novel digital environment, and this environment is not the kind of space you enter and leave. It is not a particular activity that you start and stop and resume, and it is not a social scene that you might abandon when it suits you. It is instead a complete shadow world of endless images; disembodied, manipulable personas; and the ever-present gaze of others. It lives in your pocket and in your mind.

This shadow world is always available to you. The price you pay for its availability—and the engine of its functioning—is that you are always available to it, as well. Unless you have a strength of will that eludes most adults, its emissaries can find you at any hour and in any place to issue your summons to the grim pleasure palace.

I am fairly certain that the self-restraint and self-discipline required to use a smartphone well—that is, to treat it purely as an occasional tool rather than as a totalizing way of life—are unreasonable things to demand of teenagers. I am fairly certain of this because most of the time, it feels like these are unreasonable things to demand of me, a fully adult woman. To enjoy the conveniences that a smartphone offers, I must struggle against the lure of the permanent scroll, the notification, the urge to fix my eyes on the circle of light and keep them fixed. I must resist the default pseudo-activity the smartphone always calls its user back to, if I want to have any hope of filling the moments of my day with the real activity I believe is actually valuable.

This is not an ideal situation for anyone. But for a child or teen still learning the rudiments of self-control, still learning what is valuable and fulfilling, still learning how to prioritize what is good over the impulse of the moment, it is an absurd bar to be asked to clear—especially considering the work adults do to interfere with development of the exact virtues of attention they apparently expect of the young adults in their care.

The expectation that children and adolescents will navigate new technologies with fully formed and muscular capacities for reason and responsibility often seems to go along with a larger abdication of responsibility on the part of the adults involved. Because of the significant conveniences smartphones and related tech offer to adult lives, and because it is difficult and unpleasant to swim upstream and stake out a position of refusal in the face of a mass cultural phenomenon, adults have frequently given in to a Faustian temptation: offering up their children’s generation to be used as guinea pigs in a mass longitudinal study in exchange for a bit more room to breathe in their own undeniably difficult roles as educators, caretakers, and parents.

Convenience is, of course, not the reason most people give for their reluctance to rethink the mass adoption of iPhones. One reason commonly offered for maintaining our socio-technological status quo is that nothing really has changed with the advent of the internet, of Instagram, of Tiktok and Youtube and 4Chan. Adolescents have always found ways to be vicious to each other, and vicious actors have always found a way to prey on others to sell products.

To a degree, this is true. There are no new sins; as Miss Marple reminds us, human nature is much the same everywhere. But the environments in which humans find themselves vary significantly, and in ways that have equally significant downstream effects on the particular expression of human nature in that context.

For decades, teenage girls have had to resist the toxicity of women’s magazines lining every grocery store aisle and beauty commercials airing on every television channel—all bad, and worth addressing in its own right—but the TV, at some point, was turned off. The magazine rack occupied physical space, and therefore could be gotten clear of with a few steps past the register. The pre-internet advertising world was vicious, to be sure, but when the “pre-” came off, its vices were moved into a compound interest account. In the world of online advertising, at any moment, in any place, a user engaged in an infinite scroll might be presented with native content about how one Instagram model learned to accept her chunky (size 4) thighs, while in the next clip, another model relates how a local dermatologist saved her from becoming an unlovable crone at the age of 25 (#sponsored; link to coupon in comments).

Just as the commercial conquest of life was formerly limited to physical fronts, developing pathological interests and capacities used to take a lot more work than it does now. Sure, a young person in past years could, if they so desired, fall in with their local chapter of some crank organization and become radicalized in strange and unhealthy ways. But this path involved action: You had to seek it out, as you once had to seek out pornography and look someone in the eye while paying for it. You were not funneled into it by an omnipresent stream of algorithmically curated content—the ambience of digital life, so easily mistaken by the person experiencing it as fundamentally similar to the non-purposive ambience of the natural world.

And when interpersonal relations between teens become sour, nasty, or abusive, as they often do and always have, the unbalancing effects of transposing social life to the internet become quite clear. There is no coming home from school after a bad day and leaving its petty humiliations, at least temporarily, behind. There is no guarantee that whatever jackass or moronic thing you said or did will, with time, be as forgotten as last year’s lunch menu. There is no localized limit to the sexist trashing of a young girls’ reputation after trusting the wrong boy: In the world of the digital image, nudes are both the currency of everyday affection and a permanently invested power to call up endlessly circulatable humiliation. For both young men and young women, the pornographic scenario—dominance and degradation, exposure and monetization—creates an experiential framework for desires that they are barely experienced enough to understand.

This is not a world I want to live in. I think it hurts everyone; but I especially think it hurts those young enough to receive it as a natural state of affairs rather than as a profound innovation. And so I am baffled by the most routine objection to any blaming of smartphones for our society-wide implosion of teenagers’ mental health, which is that the teens in question are not suffering on account of the universal availability of pocket computers designed to capture their attention like almost nothing else in the human world; they are instead suffering because of wealth inequality, from a dearth of walkable cities, from the melting ice caps. In short, and inevitably, today’s teenagers are suffering from capitalism—specifically “late capitalism,” if your tweets about the issue get enough disputative lift to make it into general circulation.

All of the above listed evils are bad, in my view. It would not surprise me if reflecting on their existence made someone low, although I don’t think, in practical terms, that they are as plausible a culprit for widespread breakdowns in habit and affect as personal technologies used every day. But what shocks me about this rhetorical approach is the rush to play defense for Apple and its peers, the impulse to wield the abstract concept of capitalism as a shield for actually existing, extremely powerful, demonstrably ruthless capitalist actors.

This motley alliance of left-coded theory about the evils of business and right-coded praxis in defense of a particular evil business can be explained, I think, by a deeper desire than overthrowing capitalism. It is the desire not to be a prude or hysteric or bumpkin—the understandable desire not to have the reactions and allegiances of a bad person.

No one wants to come down on the side of tamping off pleasures and suppressing teen activity. Nobody wants to be the wild-eyed internet warrior claiming some toxin that peer-reviewed studies have yet to identify has irreparably harmed their child. No one wants to be the shrill or leaden antagonist of a thousand beloved movies, inciting moral panics, scheming about how to stop the youths from dancing on Sunday. But commercial pioneers are only just beginning to explore new frontiers in the profit-driven, smartphone-enabled weaponization of our own pleasures against us. To limit your moral imagination to the archetypes of the fun-loving rebel versus the stodgy enforcers in response to this emerging reality is to choose to navigate it with blinders on, to be a useful idiot for the robber barons of online life rather than a challenger to the corrupt order they maintain. It is to substitute the arrested, cringing desire to be cool—and, if not young, youth adjacent—for the basic responsibilities of adult rule. And no one else will take up those responsibilities if we do not, although we will still be ruled all the same.

The very basic question that needs to be asked with every product rollout and implementation is what technologies enable a good human life? But even in a time of explainer journalism and “infotainment,” this question is not, ultimately, the province of social scientists, notwithstanding how useful their work may be on the narrower questions involved. It is the free privilege, it is the heavy burden, for all of us, to think—to deliberate and make judgments about human good, about what kind of world we want to live in, and to take action according to that thought.

There are over one billion iPhone users in the world today. I am not suggesting that everyone immediately dump theirs into the sea. (It would, among other things, be very unkind to the fish.) I am not sure how to build a world in which children and adolescents, at least, do not feel they need to live their whole lives online. Perhaps it simply means legally treating smartphones more like cars, alcohol, or tobacco products than we currently do, and regulating the extent to which minors can possess and use them. Perhaps it simply means a collective norm forming out of a critical mass of individual stances: for every parent who delays the advent of the smartphone in their kids’ lives, the easier it is for other parents to do the same, and the easier it is on the children suffering the social burden of being an outlier.

But whatever particular solutions emerge from our negotiations with each other and our reckonings with the force of cultural momentum, they will remain unavailable until we give ourselves permission to set the terms of our common life. And this we must do without waiting for social science to hand us a comprehensive mandate it is fundamentally unable to provide; without cowering in panic over moral panics; and most of all, without affording Apple, Facebook, Google, and their ilk the defensive allegiance we should reserve for each other.

Clare Coffey

Clare Coffey is a writer living in Idaho. Twitter: @ClareCoffey.