Love it or leave it: why you can’t negotiate with a smartphone

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Screen addiction is a fixture of modern life. So too is the belief system that goes with it.

We assume phones have made our kids depressed, isolated and suicidal. We assume that if phones are the problem, we can make them the solution — design them to be less addictive and users will break free. Or, as we saw in the previous post, start using time-management apps and stop wasting time on all those other apps.

Something wrong with this picture? Definitely, say two opinion pieces this week.

Said the spider to the fly. In the first piece, Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman has a provocative question:  “Can you trust Big Tech to cure you of your smartphone habit?” He has his sights on the “digital wellness” movement, whose aim is to cure our tech addiction with more tech — a subset of the larger credo that sees tech as the fix for everything. Burkeman has spotted my new favorite self-improvement app: Forest, which displays a tree on your phone when you put it down. It gradually begins to grow — oops, and dies when you pick it back up. What will they think of next?

This incrementalism doesn’t solve anything. And really, do grown adults need to see a tree dying to remind them not to waste their lives? Worse, it perpetuates the original problem, leaving you stuck right where they want you, inside the walled garden with its lush, toxic flowering devices:

“… digital wellness aims to diminish your dependency on your devices – but at the cost of increasing your dependency on the corporations behind those devices. … More generally, it seems likely to weaken your self-discipline muscle, by outsourcing the job of managing your time and attention to a third party.”

Crisis without a cause. In the second piece, we find a bigger affront to conventional wisdom. As psychology prof Tracy Dennis-Tiwary writes in the NYT, “Taking Away the Phones Won’t Solve Our Teenagers’ Problems.” Not simply because that ploy, like the anti-app apps, won’t get a parent very far — but because there’s simply no evidence that the compulsive use of smartphones actually causes mental health problems like depression (some specialists see it differently, e.g. Jean Twenge, this lit review, this current study). 

Phones may look like the problem. For kids, however, phones are a symptom, and a very effective coping mechanism for the anxiety that fills their lives:

“… if smartphone addiction is a reflection of adolescent anxiety, cutting screen time may not solve the broader problems that drive teenagers to their screens. Just blaming the machines is a cop-out, a way to avoid the much more difficult task of improving young people’s lives so they won’t need to escape.”

Hard to dispute: ignoring the underlying problems is not a strategy, any more than blaming the devices and their makers.

But here’s the dilemma. You can’t change anyone’s compulsive attachment to their phone without taking it away first. Any more than you can run group therapy while the participants are still high. 

As I’ve explained ad nauseam, I’ve concocted a classroom experience that turns a very unpopular move — taking away student phones — into an unlikely success story. I retold that story as part of a recent report issued by Pew Research in conjunction with its experts survey on the future impact of digital technologies. Unlike the report discussed in the previous post, this one is more anecdotes than analysis: Stories From Experts About the Impact of Digital Life (pdf here).

Here, in slightly under 500 words, is why I’m a big fan of taking phones away — in the right circumstances (Stories, pp. 48-49):

“Several years ago I walked into my fourth-year class and, in a fit of pique, announced I was confiscating everyone’s phone for the entire three hours. I later upped the ante by banning all digital devices in favor of pen and paper. Some unusual revelations have emerged since then – including some happy outcomes from going digital cold turkey. The students in my courses are there to learn about telecom and internet technologies. On the surface, it looks like a perfect match: hyperconnected digital natives acquiring more knowledge about digital. If only. The sad truth is they suffer from a serious behavioral addiction that makes it pretty much impossible for them to pay attention to their instructors or classmates. 

“It also turns out these self-styled digital natives don’t know anything more about digital than their elders. At the start of classes, students react with predictable shock and annoyance when I confiscate their phones. Some even drop out rather than suffer the indignity of being offline for an entire class. Yet to pretty much everyone’s surprise, redemption comes to almost everyone. Within a month, I get enthused reactions about how good it feels to be phone-deprived. Grades go up, along with the quality of class discussion. Some students report this is the first time they’ve been able to concentrate on the course material. Or it’s the only course in which they’ve learned something. That would be flattering if it weren’t such a sad indictment of the state of higher education today, where classrooms have become a wasteland of digital distraction. 

“It’s tempting to assume our hyperconnected 20-somethings are the authors of their own fate, and have only themselves to blame for not getting the best from their education. Except it’s not that simple. First, students are behaving exactly like the grownups in our tech-addled culture, ditching their moment-to-moment social responsibilities for another jab at the screen. Second, the unseemly classroom behavior is a coping strategy for many students, who have to put up with indifferent professors and a pervasive campus culture that casts them in the role of customers rather than learners. And third, they have many enablers – the instructors who see not paying attention as the new normal; the parents who can’t bear to be out of touch with their kids for even an hour; and the campus administrators who turn a blind eye because of their own obsession with new technologies as a panacea for every institutional problem. For all their initial resistance, however, depriving students of their devices for three-hour stretches has turned out to be a remarkably simple and effective solution. There’s also good research that students are less effective at learning their course material when they’re online and ignoring the instructor. Not to mention studies showing that students learn more and better using pen and paper instead of keyboards and screens.” 

D.E.

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Internet good or bad? Yes (2)

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The Internet keeps getting busier — more people going online and spending more time once they get there. It’s also becoming a worse place to be, on almost any objective measure: mental health, privacy, safety, social cohesion, cyberwarfare, etc.

Can we love the Internet and still hate what it’s doing to us?

In two reports released in April, the Pew Research Center provides some surprising answers. The first report doesn’t bury the lead. It’s entitled “A Declining Majority of Online Adults Say the Internet Has Been Good for Society” But there’s a sharp counterpoint accompanying that finding. These respondents see good for themselves as individuals — but for society, not so much (gen-pop survey here). Continue reading

More time online or less? Yes (1)


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Barely six months ago, some unusual critics told Apple it was making a big mistake in its iPhone design. It was doing too good a job — and making us too fond of the world’s greatest fetish object. Unusual because the critics included two of Apple’s biggest institutional investors (Jana Partners and CALSTRS: as noted in my January 31 post).

Making phones less attractive is one of the stop-gap remedies for the millions with a case of screen addiction. Along comes Apple’s recent Worldwide Developers Conference, WWDC, and babam! — we have software adjustments in the next iteration of iOS intended to appease the critics and save us from ourselves (WWDC keynote here).

iOS 12 will have two expanded controls plus a newish feature. Do Not Disturb (DND) gets auto-timing and a Do Not Disturb During Bedtime add-on. Notifications get less annnoying with Grouping and Instant Tuning. And add the new Screen Time feature, which tells you precisely how much of your life you’re wasting on your phone and where. Continue reading

Digital classrooms are the problem, not the solution

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Naomi Buck wrote a thoughtful piece in the Globe recently entitled “A hard lesson: The digital classroom can really fail.” It’s a rare acknowledgement that “digital” and “classroom” may not go together the way everyone assumes — or would like. 

Getting digital tech into the classroom has reached motherhood status. The latest well-intentioned effort to keep kids plugged in comes from US Senators Udall and Gardner, who’ve written a bill to ensure school buses get equipped with Wi-Fi — so the kids will ignore Instagram and dive into their homework.

Good luck with that, Buck might say, pointing to the “misuse” of tech as a good reason not to give schoolkids ubiquitous access. Misuse is what everyone wants to stamp out in class — as in content that’s “inappropriate” for our tender offspring. Misuse, sadly, is baked into the system. Kids can’t be expected to resist the addictive temptations of digital life — especially, I would add, given the poor example set by their parents.  Continue reading

More cures for the dumb things we do with smartphones

“The largest supercomputers in the world are inside of two companies — Google and Facebook — and we’re pointing them at people’s brains, at children.” –Tristan Harris, Center for Humane Technology

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Our culture’s dominant behavioral addiction has caught the attention of two types of experts: psychologists and engineers. The psychologists have been represented in book format by, among others, Sherry Turkle (Reclaiming Conversation, 2016); Adam Alter (Irresistible, 2017); and Jean Twenge (iGen, 2017). The engineering camp has been slower off the mark and full of surprises — not the least being a backlash against addictive devices and services by some of the very guys who invented them.

Here’s a word from the turncoat technologists and four other parties determined to make your life a better place to be.

1- Early Facebook and Google Employees Form Coalition to Fight What They Built

Eating their young. The Center for Humane Technology is a big deal for several reasons. First, it’s the brainchild of a group of Silicon Valley A-list technologists from the big firms being blamed for creating the addiction epidemic in the first place. They include the inventor of Facebook’s “like” button and a number of other engineers and VCs who played key roles at Apple and Google. Tristan Harris, former Design Ethicist at Google, is the director.

  • Second, they have serious funding, incuding $7 million from advocacy group Common Sense Media, plus another $50 million in air-time from the likes of Comcast and DirecTV.
  • Third, the group is mounting a huge outreach campaign — The Truth About Tech — that will be rolled out to 55,000 public schools to raise consciousness among educators, parents and students.
  • Fourth, they’re going to Washington to lobby for legislation that aims to curtail the power of the biggest tech companies.

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The dumb things we do with smartphones

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In the previous post, we discussed ways to mitigate the potential harms of digital life. In my responses to the Pew/Elon survey questions, I took two unvarnished truths for granted.

First, unless you’re shilling for Google or Facebook, the harms stemming from digital life are no longer “potential.” Second, we’ve barely begun to think seriously about mitigating any of the harms. That’s especially the case at the personal level: behavioral addiction is up there with cyber-terrorism when it comes to a long-term fix. 

Below are some ideas mooted recently for stemming the towering tidal wave of compulsive and anti-social behaviors sweeping our society — what you might call the Smartphone Crisis. 

1 – France Moves To Ban Students From Using Cellphones In Schools

I recently interviewed an undergrad from the University of Toronto who grew up in London but was educated in the French lycée system. She says phones were nowhere to be seen in any of her classes — part of the strict French approach to education.

So it was a little surprising to read that the French Minister of Education himself decreed recently that he’s banning phones from all primary and secondary school classrooms. That’s especially surprising since France passed such a law — seven years ago. As one high-ranking teachers’ union official put it, presumably speaking of their recalcitrant students, “It is extremely difficult to get respect.

Part of the problem may be of the minister’s own making. He seems to be carving out exceptions before he even starts: “You may need a mobile phone, for example, for educational purposes, for emergency situations…” Oops. As soon as you allow that phones have any legitimate purpose in the classroom then students, vendors and campus admins will all find ingenious wedges to beat the system. Among the biggest opponents to a ban are parents worried about being out of touch with their kids for a few hours. Continue reading

How to mitigate digital harms? First, be very patient (3)

And on to the third and last main question of the Pew/Elon survey. The tough one — ok, smart guy, you got any solutions? Or to quote the original:

“Do you think there are any actions that might successfully be taken to reduce or eradicate potential harms of digital life to individuals’ well-being?”

I’m a pessimist about the harms but an optimist about solutions:

  • Yes, there are interventions that can be made in the coming years to improve the way people are affected by their use of technology.
  • No, there are not interventions that can be made to improve the way people are affected by their use of technology

So, “yes” is the answer here. And finally…

“Please elaborate on your response below about why you do or don’t think there can be actions taken to mitigate potential harms of digital life.” Continue reading

The digital life is killing higher ed (2)

Yesterday I described the latest Pew/Elon survey on the future of the Internet. The first of three main questions for the participants asked whether the digital life will help or harm our personal well-being. Harm, says I.

The next question asks for a personal anecdote to illustrate some of the concerns being aired:

“Please share a brief personal anecdote about how digital technology has changed your daily life, your family’s life or your friends’ lives in regard to well-being – some brief observation about technology’s impact on life for you, your family or friends. Tell us how this observation or anecdote captures how hyper-connected life changes people’s well-being, compared to the way life was before digital connectivity existed.”

Another easy choice. Here’s what I wrote in my survey response: Continue reading