One of my favorite blogs, The Art of Manliness, recently asked: “What’s the Right Age to Get a Kid Their First Smartphone?” They put the question to three “tech thinkers,” and got some very telling responses. (The emphasis is mine.)
1.) Larry D. Rosen, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at California State: “I used to say that 12 or so was the magic age when kids discovered social media and communicated virtually with their friends. Now, however, with the pandemic as well as the increasing use by preteens, I say that 10 or 11 is fine if the child is missing out on socializing.”
2.) Adam Alter, Professor of Marketing at NYU: “The sweet spot is allowing your kids to use screens as late as possible—but not so late that your decision to withhold puts them in a difficult position socially…. I don’t think many kids are mature enough to handle the stresses of screens until their mid-teens, though very few kids start using social media platforms that late.”
3.) Carl Newport, Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, said: “I lean toward waiting until at least 16 years old to give teenagers unrestricted access to smartphones…. In most cases, it’s easier to work on solving the social issues surrounding having no smartphone at that age than it is to solve the issues caused by having one.”
As regular readers of this blog can imagine, I agree more with Newport. But, still, he doesn’t go far enough.
We know that mobile phones (and especially smartphones) are a bad thing. They have virtually no redeeming qualities. And we know that their harmful effects are felt most children and teenagers.
For example, we know that excessive screen time is always linked to poor sleep, anxiety, and depression. We know that it causes traumatic insecurity among girls and young women. We know that risk of adolescent suicide use rises in correlation with smartphone use. Even if you take a student’s phone away during school hours, the anxiety of being without his phone (“Nomophobia”)can be equally disruptive.
And we’re only just scratching the surface here. That’s not counting the side-effects we all witness personally, day in and day out. Babies being pushed in strollers while watching YouTube videos on Mom’s smartphone. Teenagers roaming the sidewalks in packs—earbuds in, eyes locked on their screens. Et cetera.
If you’ve ever spoken to one of those tech-addicted teens, you know they are totally incapable of carrying on a conversation. Some just don’t know what to say—they can’t push a coherent sentence over their bottom jaw—because they’re used to communicating through emojis and GIFs and LOLs. Others get so anxious from being without their phone that they compulsively take it out of their pocket mid-conversation and start scrolling through Instagram—leaving their interlocutor to stand there, dumb, until said teen simply turns and drifts off.
It’s not just the kiddos, either. I’m twenty-seven, which is a grown man by any standards. When I was in middle school, I was the only kid without a smartphone. Mine was the first generation for whom smartphones were the norm from adolescence.
(I didn’t get a smartphone myself until I was twenty-three, and only at the behest of my employer. After less than a year, I got so sick of it that I drowned it in a friend’s pool. A few years later, a new employer also asked me to get a new smartphone. A few months later, I smashed it with a wooden mallet.)
We can already see the effects of chronic smartphone use in men and women my age. I meet folks every day. These folks seem like normal, well-adjusted adults—except they speak almost exclusively in memes. (“And so Iwas like, Begone, thot!“) They can’t express any thought deeper than a thimble without pulling out their phones to read an article or play a YouTube clip.
Sometimes, you can’t help but wonder, “In what sense do these people really qualify as people?” They don’t really experience the world around them; their only reality is Artificial Reality. They don’t have any thoughts or ideas of their own; they just absorb and regurgitate what they glean from Paul Joseph Watson clips.
Their eyes are projectors; their mouths are speakers. They exist only to amplify the content they absorb from their screens—their precious screens.
This is the fate that awaits your child if he becomes addicted to his phone. And for what? What’s the trade-off? So that he doesn’t feel “left out”? Are we really letting children peer-pressure parents into getting their kids death-boxes? (“How will Jenny’s classmates be able to cyberbully her until she hangs himself unless you buy her the new Google Pixel?”)
When kids used to ask to do stupid things because “all the other kids were doing it,” moms used to say, “If all the other kids jumped off a cliff, would you do it?” That was the right answer. What happened to those moms?
Why, I’ll tell you. They figured out years ago that it’s easier to give a kid an iPad than it is to actually parent. Mrs. Smith lets little Timmy watch videos of Mickey Mouse decapitating Minnie on YouTube Kids until he turns six. Then she dump him on the public school system for twelve years. Once he turns eighteen, young Tim-Tim isn’t Mrs. Smith’s problem anymore.
Bear in mind, too, that many Boomers are nearly as addicted to their phones as any Zoomer. Naturally, their addiction manifests itself a little differently. For example, the Zoomer’s smartphone-induced social anxiety prevents him from ever answering a phone call. He is a pure product of the Smartphone Era.
The Boomer, however, learned social skills growing up in the Rotary Age. He doesn’t lack confidence. If anything, just the opposite. Hence the offensive spectacle of middle-aged men in Wal-Mart all talking on their phones with the speaker on, shouting over each other so they can heard above the din, generally imitating a waddle of penguin cocks in mating season.
If they’re going to hold the phone three inches from their head, why not just turn off speaker? If they can’t hear the other person, why not call back in fifteen minutes when they get home? Why inconvenience themselves and everyone around them?
Again, the kids we can understand. Their parents never taught them manners, and the Department of Education has flushed out their common sense by the time they turn fourteen. But how can the Boomers not know better? How do they not realize how rude and impractical they’re being—gathering in flocks to play walkie-talkie with their iPhones?
How is it possible?
These are the little insanities of our age. And, someday, it will come to an end. It may be an EMP blast; it may be a zombie apocalypse. Of course, it may be the Apocalypse, but I have a feeling Jesus wants us to ride this one out.
When it does come to an end (as it must), our great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren will look back at the Smartphone Era with the same mixture of bafflement and disgust with which we view “tulipmania”—only their bafflement and disgust will be about a hundred times stronger, and rightly so.
The heart and mind and soul of this generation has been lost in the shadow of Silicon Valley, chasing likes and “favs” and retweets like phantom deer of the Asphodel Meadows.
There’s nothing you or I can do except be better. We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard. So, ditch your smartphone, and don’t let your children’s peers bully you into getting one for Timmy and Jenny.
Will your coworkers think you’re weird? Probably. Will your kids’ peers think they‘re weird? Well, if so, you should consider homeschooling. Start a co-op with likeminded parents who are aware of the danger posed by smartphones. But the answer isn’t to give your kid a Doomscreen and watch him grow into an emotionally, intellectually, morally, and spiritually stunted man-turnip.
Kurt Vonnegut was quite right when he said, “A sane person in an insane age must appear insane.” Though Evelyn Waugh put it even better: “We are normal—it is the irreligious who are freaks.”