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

1070 words

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.