Today's scares over smartphones are largely indistinguishable from yesterday's technology-driven moral panics

The "addictiveness of smartphones" is the latest technology moral panic, sending parents off with furrowed brows over whether theire kids' "brains are being rewired" by their phones.

Smartphones are only a few seconds old, evolutionarily speaking, and it's impossible to know whether the negative effects we're experiencing will be lasting or fleeting, but some perspective can be gained by looking at the worries we've had about other technologies.

In 1926, the Knights of Columbus published a phone-use survey that asked: "Does the telephone make men more active or more lazy? Does [it] break up home life and the old practice of visiting friends?" In the 1950s, parents worried about TV, saying it made their kids "aggressive and irritable as a result of over-stimulating experiences, which leads to sleepless nights and tired days." In 2000, Hillary Clinton campaigned against video games, claiming they would "steal the innocence of our children, … making the difficult job of being a parent even harder."

Maybe smartphones effects will be more enduring and harmful than landlines, TVs and video games, of course. But let's keep in mind the rock-solid certainty that children were being destroyed by the technologies that came before, from the waltz to the novel.

Statistics here have a way of conveying certainty, such as, “teens who spend five or more hours a day (versus less than one) on electronic devices are 51 percent more likely to get less than seven hours of sleep.” Or, “about 16 percent of the nation’s high-school students were bullied online in 2015,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children who are cyberbullied are three times more likely to contemplate suicide, according to a study in JAMA Pediatrics in 2014. With such facts and figures, who could argue that there’s something to worry about. Throw in the increased unease within big technology companies such as Facebook about the corrosive effects of rumor and fake news in its feeds, and among executives such as former Facebook VP Chamath Palihapitiya that they’ve unleashed a potentially destructive force, and the argument would seem airtight.

Except that it’s not. Widespread parental apprehension combined with studies lasting only a few years, with few data points, and few controls do not make an unequivocal case. Is there, for instance, a control group of teens who spent an equivalent amount of time watching TV in the 70s or playing arcade video games in the 80s or in internet chat rooms in the 90s? There is not. We may fear the effects of the smartphone, but it would seem that we fear massive uncertainty about the effects of the smartphone at least as much.

Demonized Smartphones Are Just Our Latest Technological Scapegoat [Zachary Karabell/Wired]

(Image: American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, CC-BY-SA)

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