Why it’s time to panic about kids and smartphones
Credit: Kevin Frayer / Getty images   

I’ve been commuting (to London, by train) since the 1990s. That’s long enough to remember the last of the smoking carriages – and, on one memorably gross occasion, accidentally boarding one of them. 

There’ve been other transformations. For instance, commuters now talk to one another… only joking! This is southern England, some things never change.

What has changed, however, is what people do on trains while politely ignoring their fellow passengers. Twenty years ago a lot of people read, by which I mean proper reading of actual books.

Of course, some commuters still read books, but in far smaller numbers than used to be the case. I realise that these are subjective impressions and that ‘data’ isn’t the plural of ‘anecdote’, but if you’re on a train just look around you and try calculating the book-to-smartphone ratio (bearing in mind that a modest few might be reading e-books or listening to audiobooks on their smartphones).

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Jean Twenge is someone who does have hard data on smartphone use – especially on the part of the ‘post-millennial’ generation (i.e. the young people now in their teens and early twenties, with no memory of a world without smartphones).

In an article for The Conversation, she hits us with a sequence of jaw-dropping statistics:

“By 2016, the average 12th grader said they spent a staggering six hours a day texting, on social media, and online during their free time. And that’s just three activities; if other digital media activities were included, that estimate would surely rise.

“Teens didn’t always spend that much time with digital media. Online time has doubled since 2006…”

Twenge is a high-profile scholar of the smartphone revolution. She’s best known for her work on the impact of smartphone use on young people’s behaviour and mental health (which I’ve written about here and here).

As often happens to those who warn about the effects of liquid modernity on young minds, she has her critics. For instance, one could dismiss the doubling of time spent online as a mere by-product of the increased availability of broadband, Wifi etc. (Just because we’re now usually connected while using our electronic devices, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re spending more time on with them.)

One might also argue that online activities, such as gaming, have a social element that offline equivalents lack and are therefore less isolating in their effects. The trouble with that theory, however, is the evidence that young people are spending substantially more time playing computer games:

“…time spent playing video games rose from under an hour a day to an hour and a half on average. One out of 10 8th graders in 2016 spent 40 hours a week or more gaming – the time commitment of a full-time job.”

Furthermore, time spent online is displacing time spent on activities in the real world with real people. Indeed, online technologies appear to exert a much more powerful displacement effect than older electronic media:

“While 70 percent of 8th and 10th graders once went to the movies once a month or more, now only about half do. Going to the movies was equally popular from the late 1970s to the mid-2000s, suggesting that Blockbuster video and VCRs didn’t kill going to the movies.”

Returning to my opening theme, it’s bad news for books too:

“…the trends in moviegoing pale in comparison to the largest change we found: An enormous decline in reading. In 1980, 60 percent of 12th graders said they read a book, newspaper or magazine every day that wasn’t assigned for school… By 2016, only 16 percent did.”

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Should we care that young people aren’t reading books anymore? After all, the internet gives them instant access to more information than any new generation in human history. This trouble is when it does so in the form of bite-sized fragments designed to exploit rather than develop youthful attention spans. As Twenge points out, “It doesn’t bode well for their transition to college… Imagine going from reading two-sentence captions to trying to read even five pages of an 800-page college textbook.”

Twenge is not a reactionary, she’s not advocating a ‘Butlerian Jihad‘ against the smartphone. But she does implore parents to carve out some screen-free time in their children’s lives – space in which they can engage with the real world more closely and human knowledge more deeply.

And that brings me to what I really resent about the tech-liberals who signal their sophistication by making snarky remarks about tech-related ‘moral panic’. However relaxed their public opinions, you can bet that in private they’ll be making some effort to curb their kids’ screentime. Not all children will be so lucky.