Smartphones and the iGen

First, read this recent article from The Atlantic  (it’s long; I’ll wait):

My facebook friends know that smartphone use is one of my own personal bugaboos — even though I will fully admit to owning and using one myself, no real plans to stop doing so. My phone holds all of my digital life in one place: calendar, email, phone and text conversations, games, and more. I have a daily reminder set to take my medication at 8 pm. I use the dropbox app when I’m cooking (so that I have access to my recipes no matter where I am). My phone plays me music and podcasts when I want to listen to something. And of course, my phone is my camera: I take hundreds of pictures (yes, 90% of them are of my kids) and they automatically sync to cloud storage for me. I shop on my phone. I check the weather on my phone. Sometimes I watch TV on my phone. If I’m curious about something, I can find my answer on google or wikipedia in seconds. In many respects it is the most useful single device I own.

There is a part of me that hates this.

In some ways, my phone is too useful. It’s great to be able to keep in touch with people, but it’s too easy to mindlessly pick it up to check facebook, even though nothing is likely to have changed in the last twenty minutes. It’s too easy to pick up my phone instead of a book, or a notepad and pen. Why is it so hard to head to the bathroom without my phone in hand? Why is it so hard to not have it be the first thing I look at every morning?

The above-linked article from The Atlantic examines the effects of smart phones and social media on what the author dubs the “iGen” — those born roughly between 1995 and 2012. The iGen doesn’t remember a time before the internet. I do; I’m a Millennial, and among the oldest of that cohort. I remember when we first got internet at home, and my first email address (at hotmail, of course) — circa 1997 or 1998. Those were the days before search engines; if we wanted to find something online, we just blindly typed in URLs until we got what we wanted, or at least something equally amusing. My husband belongs to the micro-generation between Gen-X and Millennials often called the “Oregon Trail generation,” and he straddles the line between analog and digital even more than I do. Our children are too young to qualify for iGen, but their lives will surely be shaped by technology in ways I can’t even imagine right now, just as my life has been shaped by computers and the internet into something looking very different than my parents’ lives at a similar age. At two, Anselm is frighteningly adept at navigating our phones and old tablet.

There’s no doubt that this sort of technology has impacted our lives in many positive ways. But articles like this one are a good reminder that we mustn’t forget to count the cost. We have gained a lot; what have we given up?

One sobering effect of the ubiquity of smartphones in the hands of children and teenagers is the measurable effects on mental health. Smartphone use is correlated with sharply increasing levels of isolation, depression, and an increase in suicide among both boys and girls. Social media connects us to others in the virtual world, but can disconnect us from those around us in the analog world — think of how hard it can be to get someone’s attention away from their phone, even when we are standing in front of them. Cyber-bullying is a problem, especially for girls, who are more prone than boys to use social media to bully via their preferred brand of aggression: ostracization and exclusion.

Anecdotally, I’ve noticed this in my own life. I feel unhappier on days when I have been more focused on my screens. When I over-consume (almost always on my phone, though sometimes my laptop plays its own part), I feel restless, edgy, and sad. I get snappy. It’s not healthy; I know it’s not healthy; but it’s awfully hard to break out of this pattern, even for someone old enough to well remember a different way of life. Heck, I didn’t even get a smartphone until about a year and a half ago. Growing up with phones and tablets at their fingertips, what chances do our children have?

We know what phrases to trot out at this juncture. Be the change you want to see in the world. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Et cetera. I may not be ready to stop using my smartphone; realistically, that day will probably never come (at least not until I’m refusing to upgrade to direct brain implant in twenty years or so). But the next time I have to pee, my phone isn’t coming with me.


For further reading:

I kicked my smartphone addiction by retraining my brain to enjoy being bored

Boys Online: Teens from across Canada on everything from nude pics to twitter breakups

I Used to be a Human Being

Screens in Schools are a $60 Billion Hoax

Don’t Post about Me on Social Media, Children Say