Do you want a no-Instagram daughter? Adam Berry/Redferns

March 2, 2024   12 mins

“Internet addiction” has lived a strange life since the Nineties. In 1995, a New York psychiatrist introduced the term, not to describe a real affliction of internet users, but to parody certain diagnostic tendencies in his field. Then other people, not realising the term’s origins, took it seriously, and, from the late Nineties onwards, the idea began to spread that people really were getting addicted to the internet.

Then other people, often sophisticated progressives and libertarians convinced that the internet is a force for progress and liberation, performed triumphant Gotchas!” by reminding the world that “internet addiction” was invented as parody: the joke was on the fretful rubes. This wised-up view was dominant in mainstream (ie centre-left) commentary through much of the 2010s. Then, in 2016, Donald Trump won that big election, allegedly with the help of Russians making Facebook posts, and the elite consensus that the internet is a force for liberation sort of fell apart. Progressives grew more bullish about technology, which freed them to look at the apps on their phones and join everyone else in admitting that, yeah, this internet crap is pretty addictive.

This history says several depressing things about our intellectual class, but at least it has left us at a point where parents in the UK can start a movement against kids having smartphones without being accused of losing their minds to a “moral panic”. This campaign was spurred by a simple Instagram post from Daisy Greenwell, who said she was “terrified” of the idea of her two children getting smartphones before they’re even teenagers. “It feels like we all know this is a bad decision for our kids,” she wrote, but “we still all stumble into it because everyone else is, and it’s too hard not to follow suit.” After only 10 days, her movement was 5,000 strong: “We’re encouraging them to start setting up Smartphone Free Childhood groups in their schools,” she wrote, “which are popping up across the country.”

Her movement has been able to gain such strong momentum, without having its credibility immediately attacked by high-status commentators, because the evidence behind its driving worries has grown stronger in recent years. In the past, people have resisted claims about smartphones and mental health for sound reasons. After all, studies supporting the anti-smartphone case were largely correlational. In her 2017 book iGen, for example, Jean Twenge drew strong conclusions about the dire effects of smartphones largely from the matching of timelines — yearly increases in anxiety, depression, and suicide with yearly increases in teenage smartphone ownership and social media use. Critics noted that other factors could explain those changes in well-being. Some claimed that a closer look at the data showed much smaller, even negligible effects where Twenge had made strong causal claims.

In the seven years since iGen emerged, however, the correlations between phone use and unwellness have stayed strong, while the holes that other scholars punctured in Twenge’s causal claims turned out to be smaller than they first appeared. At the same time, evidence for the slightly different claims about the distracting and compulsive effects of phone use have grown even harder to refute. These things, combined with the epochal vibe-shift caused by Trump’s election, have altered the balance of rhetorical forces in the tech debate. The rote response from pro-tech side, that people like Twenge were fuelling “moral panic” and anti-tech hysteria, started to sound pretty hysterical itself.

But focusing the debate about tech on mental health, though useful and urgent in obvious respects, is also a distraction from the more fundamental, more philosophical question of freedom, of human agency in the face of inhuman power. It was depressing to watch as influential writers and thinkers — progressives both of the traditional Left and (less surprisingly) of the libertarian Right, along with the professional cheerleaders of tech media — ignored this question in eager defence of this new, indifferent force that now ruled our lives.

Valorising technology, on the empty assumption that the work of corrosion and subversion and redefinition it is doing is emancipatory and progressive, became very hard to distinguish from worshipping power for the sake of how powerful it is. Enthusiasts were keen to read healthy tidings in the rise of the internet, and benefits both spiritual and political from the psychic and social changes it wrought, even though the clearest, the most potent, the only obvious claim that it could make for itself was one of brute ontology. It was an emergent phenomenon of singular scope and reach and gravity. But its spokespeople continued to read its effects as progressive, to insist it was doing humanity’s work. They continued to mock those who publicly worried about its dangers, even as its growing power to remake everything, by its own inner logic, and on behalf of the most profitable companies in the history of capitalism, was growing ever more flagrant.

As I watched this dynamic play out over the second decade of this third millennium, I found myself thinking: wait, aren’t writers and intellectuals and academics supposed to be vigilant and skeptical about power, especially power working on behalf of capital? So why, every time someone goes public with a reasonable worry about the singular and rapidly growing power of digital technology, is that person mocked by sophisticated professionals of the intellectual class for fueling another “moral panic”. This term was so popular it grew, over the history of commentary on the internet, into a sort of authoritative clichĂ©, a peremptory move by with-it pundits that conveyed a regime enforcer’s mix of swagger and dullness.

My favourite version of this comes from a Guardian review of Tim Wu’s 2016 book The Attention Merchants, which waves off Wu’s claims that internet degrades our attention and concentration. “This is an ancient complaint,” the reviewer assures us, “and a rather silly one. Every media innovation since the invention of writing has triggered a moral panic about whether the human experience would be hopelessly corrupted as a result. Socrates agonised about wax tablets; the monks of the late middle ages railed against the printing press.” Anyone who knows anything about what happened after the invention of the printing press might find the blithe tone of this passage somewhat befuddling. And to invoke 15th-century monks bearish about the printing press as your special avatars of irrational fear is, one might say, a counterintuitive use of history. The printing press was a vector of world-breaking power, especially from the monk’s perspective. To the extent that they really were in a moral panic about it, we should treat those monks as models of foresight.

As someone who likes books and wasn’t killed in the Wars of Religion, I have a positive attitude about the printing press myself, but I have to admit it that it did unleash cataclysmic forces that still shape us six centuries after it (understandably) bummed out those monks. The internet hasn’t yet given us its Thirty Years War. For now, it conducts its more salient and systematic upheavals on smaller human scales – society, community, family, individual self, and various subconscious workings and proclivities of that self. Indeed, this power seems to move relentlessly towards smallness, as if some law of subdivision or dissolution secretly guides it. This applies both to the objects it conveys to our awareness and the aspects of our awareness it conveys them to. Using ever smaller packages of experience it teases ever simpler human instincts, reflexes ever further removed the whole selves we present to one another in embodied life. With every advance it reaches deeper into evolutionary time, discovering and exploiting reflexes we share with ever-simpler creatures, our stone-age ancestors, their primate forebears, and then monkeys, and then rats.

“With every advance it reaches deeper into evolutionary time, discovering and exploiting reflexes we share with ever-simpler creatures”

A recent post by the American blogger Ted Gioia captures how this logic applies to the objects of culture. Under the influence of Silicon Valley, he argues, culture is getting “faster”, by which he means cultural products are growing shorter and the human capacities they appeal to more reflexive, less human, more pathological. Under the heading “How Silicon Valley Views Culture” he presents the technological history of culture in the style of a food-chain illustration in a child’s science textbook: a fish-shape named “Art” being consumed by the fish-shape “Entertainment”, which is consumed by the fish-shape “Distraction”, which, finally (for now), is consumed by the fish-shape “Addiction”. In another graphic, titled “The Rise of Dopamine Culture”, Gioia captures various cultural enterprises on their downward trajectory towards elemental smallness and crudeness. Here are a few:

Journalism: Newspapers->Multimedia->Clickbait

Music: Albums->Tracks->TikToks

Athletics: Play a Sport->Watch a Sport->Bet on a Sport.

You might take up an easygoing attitude about tech and say “What’s the big deal? Longer entertainments are not inherently better than shorter ones.” But that belief — wrong as it is — gets harder to hold once you reach the one about sports and betting. This example should be a chilling sign of the perverse moral power of technological affordances over our ability to set norms and rules for ourselves and live by them — seeing how quickly the emergence of phone-based betting apps has dissolved longstanding, clearly reasonable, and fundamentally humane scruples about sports gambling.

Betting on sports has gone from an ethically dubious and legally ambiguous diversion accompanied by massive downside risks that everyone recognises, to a ubiquitous feature of sports advertising that celebrities feel no apparent shame in promoting, and which sports teams and leagues feel no evident misgivings in exploiting for profit. Gambling was already dogged by the risk of ruinous compulsion even before it was technologically fused with phone apps whose mere mechanical use is meant to be compulsive. A sports-fan turned compulsive gambler through compulsive scrolling on his addictive-by-design gambling apps — I think the business term for this is synergy. The philosophical term for technology’s ability to effect this sort of moral revolution is: power.

One admirable thing about the movement of UK mums is that they take up this matter of power with admirable stoutness and directness. Sure, they indulge in a little safetyism in their online manifesto — but less than I would have expected. Perhaps because they’re parents and want to resist what phones will do to the inner workings of their families, their articulation of “The Problem” is surprisingly political — concerned as much with unfashionable matters of will, freedom, and personhood as it is with the familiar issues of anxiety and depression.

The manifesto begins with not a predictable warning about mental health (that’s the second heading) but with the obvious (and yet still quibbled-about with brain-dead reference to “moral panic”) point that “Smartphones are Highly Addictive”. It points out that “[t]ech companies spend millions on making apps and devices intentionally addictive”. For anyone who has spent time researching the cognitive-science end of the technology business (companies such as “Dopamine Labs” and other the Stanford-trained practitioners of “behavioural design”), or for anyone who’s read Natasha Dow Schull’s Addiction By Design, it’s clear that the tech industry has a dark vein of misanthropy running through it. The fact that this force of hating people informs the design of products that children use for hours a day should justify a constant, contrary state of disgust and alarm among parents, whatever the latest studies tell us about depression. Other headings in the mum’s manifesto include “Smartphones Reduce Attention Spans” and “Smartphones Rob Children of Their Childhood”. These points express a basic parental concern about what kind of life their children should live, and what kind of person their children should be.

My wife Juliet and I had these thoughts in mind when we held off on getting our daughters phones until the end of their American middle school years. At this point they were both 14, the only kids their age they knew who didn’t have phones. During those last phone-free years, their avid reading was beginning to grow in sophistication. They had lived in their Harry Potter worlds in earlier grades, but as middle-schoolers, along with the gripping kid-with-cancer romances that make up today’s YA canon, they were diving into longer, more difficult fiction, serious, award-winning novels written for adults. Then, after we gave them the phones they’d long been clamouring for, their recreational reading of books basically ended.

“After we gave them the phones they’d long been clamouring for, their recreational reading of books basically ended.”

We are considered techno-puritans in our world. I’ve been theoretically suspicious and personally cranky about technology for many years, and Juliet, who has always been indifferent to tech gadgets and averse to the consumer worship of them, is a strong, steadfast anti-tech influence on our daughters. She has far more emotional stamina and far deeper tolerance for parent-daughter conflict than I do (but, as a school counselor, she’s an expert at making her points about technology without hectoring). When we gather our daughters’ phones at 10pm every weeknight, we assume we’re just practicing what everyone already knows about kids and phones and sleep. But when we let on to other parents that we do this, they are often astounded. Literally no one else does this.

And yet our anti-tech vigilance isn’t nearly enough. There’s always a reason for them to be tethered to phone and laptop until the very last minute. This points to tech’s power in the home, the no-win dilemmas it introduces into the job of raising kids. Household regimes of tech-rationing that keep devices turned off for designated hours are hit with constant exceptions and requests for exceptions. These make for a stream of irritating negotiations in the short run that, in the long run, undermine those regimes altogether. But a more ad hoc approach — “Okay, everyone, there’s too much dumb scrolling going on! Hand over your phones for the next two hours!” — is simply an invitation for open confict. You want a calm respite from compulsive behaviour, but you end up with two hours of argument and resentment.

In other words, when kids’ social worlds are completely mediated by smartphones, and when their phone behaviour has grown as compulsive as its designers mean it to be, imposing tech limits within individual households is a volatile, unpleasant, generally futile business. The blunt, no-defiance, “authoritarian” parenting style I was raised by would be much better suited to our domestic tech challenge than the “authoritative” parenting we’re obliged to use. We calm, reasoning parents are no match for the barrage of facile but exhausting complaints and counterarguments generated by the tech-teenager nexus.

This household dilemma has an analogue in the study of children’s tech use. On his blog, the Yale psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, has a helpful discussion of the difficulties scientists face in measuring the effects of tech use on the mental health of children and teenagers. In many cases, scientists have simply surveyed kids on how much time they spend online and then sought connections between time spent online and mental health outcomes, or compared kids who are offline, for whatever reason, with the much larger number who are online. Even when such studies show some negative effects, Haidt argues, these effects are probably understated. This is because offline and low-use kids are still living in a world where everyone they know is constantly, cognitively hooked up to a smartphone. So these offline kids are experiencing the cohort effects of whatever is passing among their online friends and acquaintances, plus the isolation effects of losing this one crucial and nearly universal means of socialising, plus, if their tech use is habitual, some substantial short-term hit to their well-being from having this habitual behaviour interrupted. It’s not surprising that studying the harms of tech use in this way would show weak effects at the individual level.

This analytical problem points us back towards a practical problem, what, in a discussion of the specific risks of social media for girls, Haidt calls “a trap — a collective action problem”. “Each girl might be worse off quitting Instagram even though all girls would be better off if everyone quit.” Both studying the problem and doing something about it are thus hobbled by the powerful network effects that digital technology generates, how it turns itself into an entire ecosystem seemingly all at once, entangling us in practical and social imperatives we didn’t choose and can’t opt out of without substantial cost. (I just took my son to a professional basketball game, for which our “tickets” were active bar codes I needed my iPhone to display. As the ticket service informed me, “Your phone is your ticket.” When I fantasise about ditching my iPhone, I have to consider things like that.)

Daisy Greenwell’s understanding of her problem as a parent seems trenchant in this light. It was in her initial Instagram post that she made the bleak observation, ”[W]e all know this is a bad decision for our kids.” But we make this decision anyway. Why? Because the network effects of digital technology throw us into a collective-action problem. Do you want a no-phone son who misses all the online texting and planning and gaming his friends are doing, as my 13-year-old son is presently missing those things? Do you want a no-Instagram and -TikTok daughter who misses out on the meme-culture that all her friends consume and inhabit, as my daughters did for several years? If not, you better make the bad decision, get your kid that phone that, once it takes up residence in your home, you know you’re going to hate.

And, in this light, her practical response to her dilemma as an individual parent is also wise: start localised movements, where parents can tackle the collective-action problem together, on workable scales. As Jonathan Haidt suggests, achieving phone-freedom on these scales is likely to be both healthy and clarifying, to yield better-adjusted kids and a better understanding of the cohort-level changes in happiness and habit we owe to smartphones. These will be natural tests of something that, so far, has been both hard to escape and hard to study. My only criticism is that, so far, Greenwell and her fellow mums seem shy about extending this experiment to older kids, teenagers who might really benefit from a cohort-level break from smartphones.

As it happens, Juliet was witness to a natural experiment like this recently, when she chaperoned a 10-day high school science trip on which the students were forbidden from bringing their phones (and from which one student was sent home for sneaking his phone in his bag). These kids, aged 15 to 18, slept in small cabins without TVs and so were forced to entertain themselves and each other with conversation, board games, and book-reading. As the trip began they were clearly uneasy without their phones, but they stopped itching for them after a few days, and, by the end of the trip, they were all expressing, unbidden, how much happier and calmer they were without their phones. They saw how life without phones differed from their lives as they lived them at home, naggingly networked into the collective action problem they know as teenage living. When, during their return trip, a massive storm stranded them in Los Angeles for two days, and all 11 of them had to cram into the house of one boy’s grandparents, they experienced this stressful detour as a collective adventure, with more board games, conversation, and, now, back in civilisation, horror movies they watched together. Many of these kids began this trip as strangers and ended it as friends. It takes almost nothing — for a parent of phone-age kids, especially — to imagine how different it would have been if they were holding phones in their hands the whole time.

Before I picked Juliet up from San Francisco International, she’d told me we’d be giving a ride to one student, the 16-year-old son of one of her colleagues. On the way back to Oakland this boy mentioned several times how happy everyone seemed on the trip, how easy it was to get to know each other under those conditions. At one point Juliet asked him if he was relieved to be going home to his own bedroom – after 10 days of doing fieldwork and sleeping in a cabin and being stranded in L.A.

“I’m actually kind of dreading it,” he said.

“Why?” Juliet asked.

He said – I swear to God he actually said — “Because that’s where my phone is.”

Matt Feeney is an writer based in California and the author of Little Platoons: A defense of family in a competitive age