I’ve written a lot these last few weeks about the dangers of giving our children unlimited freedom with their smartphones. I’ve cautioned about social media, video games, pornography; about withdrawing from community; about increased anxiety, depression, and loneliness, often leading to suicide. I think my tone has been appropriately alarming. I am alarmed. But as I sound the alarm, I also want to be clear about a few things I am not saying about our children and their smartphones.
I used this space last week to write about the very real concern of our children isolating themselves by spending too much time on their smartphones. Studies show that pre-teens and teens are spending six to nine hours a day consuming media, mostly on their phones. Studies also show that those same pre-teens and teens are at higher risk for depression, anxiety, and suicide than those who do not isolate themselves with their smartphones. We know these things if for no other reason than because I’ve been harping on them for weeks now! But has anyone seen studies on why our teens are giving their smartphones so much attention and thereby isolating themselves from humanity? I know there is more than one reason, but I want to suggest that at least one reason is the creators of social media apps planned it that way from the beginning.
“A man who isolates himself seeks his own desire; he rages against all wise judgment” (Proverbs 18:1).
I know a teenage girl who spends many hours a day on her smartphone playing games and posting on social media (and who knows what else). While the rest of her family engages in other recreational activities, mostly outdoors, she is content to and is allowed to spend her time with her phone. When she is forced to come out of her bedroom, at mealtime for example, she is sometimes sullen and often awkward in interactions with her family. Her contributions to the conversation are usually one sentence statements that are disconnected from the topic of conversation and seemingly meant to draw attention to herself—like an Instagram post. Even when the family detours from the original topic of conversation to engage her comments, this girl rarely has more to add, and her next entry will be as disconnected from the last one as it was from the family’s original conversation topic. It seems as if her time isolated with her phone has undermined her ability to communicate with other people in person.
Last week I wrote in this space about cell phone use among teens. There is a lot to say about it. I can’t get to all of it, but it is a serious enough subject that I will revisit it more than once. There are a great many discouraging trends in our society today, especially among teens, which are beginning to be attributed to addictive smart phone use. Arguably the most concerning trend is the failing mental health of our teenagers.
Smartphones were turned loose on the world in 2007. How many of us have stopped to think that the average fifth grader has never known a world without smartphones? Today’s seventh graders were only two years old in 2007, so it is doubtful they can access much memory before smartphones. These children have always had the power of the internet and everything it brings with it right at their fingertips on their parents’ phones. Now they have it right in their back pockets because the average American child receives his first smartphone at the ripe old age of 10 (Psychology Today). As you might expect, that little number comes with some baggage.