Ideas grow in the public consciousness by a slow accretion. What was fringe yesterday slowly gains ground, inch by inch, until it becomes an accepted part of the mainstream. One way to understand what’s becoming mainstreamed is to extensively survey public opinion, and share what you find in the impenetrable jargon of academia. Another, quicker way is just to see whatever shit Kanye West has been tweeting recently.
Tempting as it may be to suggest that Kanye’s analogy achieves Thomas Friedman-levels of clunkiness, that’s not really the point. Kanye is far from alone in having a creeping feeling that “phones are bad”. Searches for “smartphone addiction”, though still cycling up and down, have definitely ticked upwards over the last 6 months, as per below.
Meanwhile, the press is filled with lurid tales that smartphones are causing kids to have “altered childhoods” (altered from just what isn’t made clear), or that smartphones are a menace that can lead children to kill themselves, and so should be banned for children (and that’s The Guardian, not the Daily Mail, clutching its pearls). Elsewhere, we are told by a “top addiction expert” that “giving your child a smartphone is like giving them a gram of cocaine”, albeit by an addiction expert that just so happens to need to sell expensive consultations. Meanwhile in France, children have been banned from using their smartphones at school. They won’t even be able to look at them between classes, such is the public health menace.
Over in Colorado, a group of Concerned Parents went as far as to propose a total ban on children under the age of 13 from buying smartphones. Their website makes it very clear that they are not cranks, no sir, and that they are big fans of Mel Gibson’s 1996 film Braveheart.
The Canadians aren’t exempt from this either. An article in the Globe and Mail titled “Your smartphone📱is making you👈 stupid, antisocial 🙅 and unhealthy 😷. So why can’t you put it down❔⁉️” (I assume the subeditor went home particularly pleased with themselves that day), we are breathlessly told that smartphones “…have impaired our ability to remember. They make it more difficult to daydream and think creatively. They make us more vulnerable to anxiety. They make parents ignore their children. And they are addictive, if not in the contested clinical sense then for all intents and purposes…”. It goes on to quote Tristan Harris, co-founder of the Centre for Humane Technology. Harris opines that
“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works…It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave…it’s different this time…Unlike TVs and desktop computers, which are typically relegated to a den or home office, smartphones go with us everywhere. And they know us. The stories that pop up in your iPhone newsfeed and your social media apps are selected by algorithms to grab your eye.”
Smartphones are destroying how society works. We need to think of the children. It’s also a common refrain that “this time is different” and that no matter how many panics we’ve had about technology before, smartphones are more insidious and seductive. With over 2.5 billion smartphones out there, and with the average user checking their phone about 85 times a day, could the stakes be any higher? Now I could just pull the cord here and shout “moral panic” — and then go back to drinking my gin — but there’s a few questions to be answered first. How does our use of smartphones affect us? Is this hysterical response in any way justified? Certainly, monied interests at Silicon Valley have started to take note, as the new “time spent” and “app timer” features in Android P attest. Apple just announced a similar “Screentime” view for iOS. Does this mean there’s a problem?
Well, no. Tempting (and perhaps comforting) as it is to believe that Google and Apple are responding to some trove of depressing research that only they have access to, they’re responding to the change in public mood. And some voices have a disproportionate influence on the public mood.
The original doom-monger of techpocalypse was Baroness Susan Greenfield, an accomplished neuroscientist and former director of the Royal Institution in the UK. So when, as he she does in this typical interview with ABC back 2014, makes claims such as “I just wonder whether we might be looking at a generation who are completely self-centred, short attention spans, not very good at communication, rather needy emotionally and with a weak sense of identity?” and “It has become pervasive and I suggest this is a parallel universe that might tempt some people away from the real world to exist in this sort of cyber-reality of hearing and vision” we might expect people to take note. We might also expect that, to have made such bold and alarmist claims, she would have a battery of evidence to hand. And you would be wrong to have hoped for this — time and again she would make these claims and, when asked by her rather less alarmist fellow scientists to provide evidence would conspicuously fail to do so.
All of this led to an editorial in the British Medical Journal, penned by a number of distinguished neuroscientists, in which they called her out for spreading tales of the harmful effects of technology that in no way represented the current understanding of the research community. They wrote that “we are concerned that Greenfield’s claims are not based on a fair scientific appraisal of the evidence, often confuse correlation for causation, give undue weight to anecdote and poor quality studies, and are misleading to parents and the public at large”. Strong words indeed, but far worse was her wild suggestion that online interaction could be a “trigger” for “autism-like behaviours”. Again, totally detached from what is known from the research and indeed from reality. Many of her claims of “mind change”, as she called it, centred on the ability of technology to “rewire our brains” in a way that was at once simple and somehow irreversible. This is a common claim for all sorts of scaremongers, whether it be for smartphones, video games or enjoyment more broadly, and it’s nonsense. Everything we experience “rewires the brain”, or as Martin Robbins parodied it in The Guardian:
The scientist believes that use of the internet — and computer games — could ‘rewire’ the brain, causing neurons to establish new connections and pathways. “Rewiring itself is something that the brain does naturally all the time,” the professor said, “but the phrase ‘rewiring the brain’ sounds really dramatic and chilling, so I like to use it to make it seem like I’m talking about a profound and unnatural change, even though it isn’t.”
Why Baroness Greenfield is so adamant in her belief about the dangerous effects of technology on teens I’ve no idea. It could be a pining for simpler times, perhaps, but it’s dangerous and irresponsible for a prominent scientist to confuse this empty nostalgia with what the science shows. I don’t doubt her sincerity, but it’s a toxic sort of sincerity that leads you to bend the truth. Perhaps mercifully, Greenfield has been less prominent over the past few years, perhaps hampered in getting attention by the same lack of evidence noted earlier. Others, sadly, have filled this void, often armed with evidence. Or at least, with graphs.
Everything goes to hell at 50%
The latest bête noire of smartphones is one Dr. Jean Twenge, whose piece in The Atlantic last year is something of a masterpiece of the genre, and has influenced much of the discussion online since. It’s also riddled with hyperbole. The question asked in its title — Has the Smartphone Destroyed a Generation? — could be answered succinctly with Betteridge’s Law Of Headlines (which is to say, with a “No”). Twenge maintains that the title was not of her choosing, but she must be aware of the effect a title like this has on public discourse. Still, lets see what other bold claims she has to make.
Her central claim is that
Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs, and many of the distinctive characteristics of the Millennial generation began to disappear. In all my analyses of generational data — some reaching back to the 1930s — I had never seen anything like it.
What happened in 2012, you might wonder? If you said smartphones, you take home tonight’s prize.
It was after the Great Recession, which officially lasted from 2007 to 2009 and had a starker effect on Millennials trying to find a place in a sputtering economy. But it was exactly the moment when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent.
She ascribes, without any justification, fantastic powers to this 50 percent threshold. Why should we expect the number of people with smartphones exceeding 50 percent to so rapidly increase the problems they cause? Shouldn’t we just expect these problems to increase as a linear function? Moreover, 50 percent of Americans owning smartphones does not mean that 50 percent of the younger iGen (her neologism for the generation following Millenials) has smartphones. This could have happened much later — or perhaps sooner! None of the data she highlights supports this. Let’s keep tabs on this central claim of hers though — that in 2012, the problems teens face multiplied precipitously.
Twenge then continues to describe this “iGen” as being more vulnerable than preceding generations, tormented by a mental health crisis encompassing depression and suicide. Moreover:
- Teens are going out far less often
- Teens are less likely to date
- Fewer teens are having sex and the teen birth rate has fallen
- Teen employment has decreased by 22 percentage points since the mid 70s, despite the job market “bouncing back; since the Great Recessions
- The number of teens that get together with their friend has dropped by 40 percent since 2000
I’m come back to these claims later, but for now I’ll note how much she downplays the impact of the Great Recession, and considers it only in terms of the employment rate and “job availability”. It’s also notable that when teens are having too much sex, they’re a lost generation, and now that they’re having too little, they’re still a lost generation!
The boldest claim of all, however, relates to mental health. Twenge continues to write that teens that spend more time on screen activities — all screen activities — are more likely to be unhappy. This is a dubious claim as we shall see, but suggests a correlation at best — are unhappy people just more likely to spend time looking at screens? It’s also odd that all screen activities should be linked to greater unhappiness — unless you wish to suggest that reading a book on the phone causes depression due to magical properties of the screen.
Yet she starts to fudge the line between correlation and causation, suggesting later that “Once again, the effect of screen activities is unmistakable” and claiming that “heavy users of social media are 27 percent more likely to be depressed then their peers”. Again, this is just a correlation, even if we take these data at face value, but she’s slipping in weasel words like “effect” that suggest causality. This “causal” link having been established, she then notes that the teen suicide rate is now higher than the teen homicide rate. Even she caveats this like mad:
- This is as much due to the teen homicide rate falling (hardly the hallmark of a “destroyed generation”)
- This is only the first time in 24 years that this has been the case (i.e. it’s probably the norm)
- This trend began in 2011 (i.e. before the “50% in 2012” that is the crux of her argument)
You can see just how woolly her thinking becomes in the graphs that supplement the piece, where she (or again, in fairness, a facile editor) has helpfully added the year the iPhone was released.
I’ll look at whether these (apparently worrying) data are reliable in a minute, but it’s utterly fatuous to slap in a release date for the iPhone and suggest there’s some kind of causal link. Even the most disinterested passerby could see that the line at 2007 is wholly unrelated to the ongoing trends. In fact, we can all play the spurious correlations game.
Has Thom Yorke ruined a generation? Or perhaps Gordon Brown’s dulcet tones have created a generation of incels.
Having dazzled us with her many graphs, Twenge concludes by noting that even Steve Jobs would limit how much his kids used their devices, as if we are to take parenting lessons from Steve “I didn’t want to be a father, so I wasn’t,” Jobs. Still, even if you support some of the critiques I’ve made so far, you might yet have faith in the data she’s shared, and so worry that there is an adolescent mental health crisis. However, so detached were Twenge’s claims from the reality of the research that soon a chorus of voices joined together to condemn the piece.
The psychologist Sarah Rose Cavanagh criticizes Twenge for cherry-picking the data and only reporting findings that support her ideas. She doesn’t consider any of the research highlighting the positive aspects of social media, and even in her introduction notes that “iGen” has lower rates of alcohol use, teen pregnancies, unprotected sex, smoking, and car accidents than previous generations. This is hardly what a “destroyed generation” looks like, and instead of considering how generations change — with both positives and negatives — she overplays the impact of the negatives.
Is there a mental health crisis though? The researcher Vicky Rideout concedes that suicide rates have, sadly, been rising amongst US teens, from 10.8 to 14.2 per 100,000 boys aged 15–19 and from 2.4 to 5.1 per 100,000 for girls. Rates of depression have also increased, thought this could be due to better diagnosis. However, Rideout also critiques Twenge’s weasel words. After a succession of correlations are presented, Twenge then claims “Depression and suicide have many causes; too much technology is clearly not the only one” when of course, she hasn’t presented a jot of evidence that technology is a cause at all. Rideout notes that from her own research, she found that whilst 5% of teens felt that social networking made them feel more depressed, 10% felt that it made them feel less depressed! This shouldn’t be taken as “true” any more than the datasets that Twenge presents should be. Rather, the picture from the research is clearly much more complex then Twenge lets on.
Despite there being some evidence that suicide rates have ticked up, there isn’t strong evidence of a “crisis of unhappiness”. By examining the same dataset that Twenge refers to, Alexandra Samuel found little reason to believe teens were noticeably less happy.
At most you could argue that there is a modest dip, but then teens were at their happiest in 2013! The sequence of events that Twenge argues — that in 2012, some kind of watershed moment happened — just isn’t borne out by the data. Indeed, whilst those that use their smartphones the most were among the least happy groups, those that didn’t have any smartphone at all were by some way the least happy high school seniors.
In summary, there isn’t sufficient evidence in her dataset to claim that smartphones are making teens less happy. Given that it’s likely that poorer students are less likely to own a smartphone, could what small effect we observe be down to economics? We’re already seen Twenge’s attempts to dismiss this as a cause. In a subsequent article in The Guardian, Twenge again claims that
“Because the years between 2010 to 2015 were a period of steady economic growth and falling unemployment, it’s unlikely that economic malaise was a factor. Income inequality was (and still is) an issue, but it didn’t suddenly appear in the early 2010s: this gap between the rich and poor had been widening for decades”.
Far from dealing with economic factors, this amounts to handwaving. As Malcom Harris notes, unemployment is a notoriously unreliable indicator for how the economy is actually affecting people. In the last 10 years there have been huge changes to how people work — higher underemployment (though that indicator has started to fall) and lower labour participation (now at a 38 year low). Moreover, more Americans than ever are working in freelance or contract roles, up from 10.1% in 2005 to 15.8% in 2015. Whilst this might be liberating for some, it means far less job security for others. My point here isn’t that these factors are the cause for teens working less nor their having higher rates of suicide. It is, however, a real possibility, and Twenge must work much harder to discount this possibility before she rushes to defame smartphones.
Beth Uink of Murdoch University summarises the state of the research best:
“There is a lot of moral panic about screen time but early research suggests that young people are experiencing the same life developments, just in a different environment. It would be naïve to ignore the online context where identity development can occur and relationships can unfold,”
So why does Twenge make such misleading claims? I was tempted to put this down to a well-meaning if misplaced concern for children. Then I remembered that Twenge is selling a book (“iGen”, which mea culpa I’ve not read, since my interest was with her far more influential article), and that this isn’t the first time she’s pulled this shtick.
About a decade ago, she was banging the drum about millennials, claiming that we were on the cusp of a “narcissism epidemic” (again, she was selling an eponymous book to worried parents) and that her research showed that millennials were radically more self-obsessed and entitled that preceding generations. Then, as now, the claim is not borne out by the evidence. The sociologist Jay Livingston, referencing a study by Roberts et al (2010), shows that, when you compare Twenge’s dataset to a broader meta-analysis that folds in two additional datasets, you get the below.
Or rather, the generational narcissism crisis vanishes. In the face of criticisms such as these (and in particular, those of Jeffrey Arnett), Twenge has defended her research and notes that other studies have lined up behind her. Yet most of the studies that I could find — including some of the most recent ones — did not support the narcissism epidemic (including the memorably titled “Are People Becoming More Entitled Over Time? Not in New Zealand” which is something we can all get behind). Either way, none of the nuances of the research are revealed to parents through such a sensationalist presentation as “the narcissism epidemic”.
For her to have made misleading and alarmist claims not once but twice sets my spidey sense tingling. Millennials are not experiencing a crisis of narcissism, and “iGen” is not being destroyed by smartphones. Focusing our fears on technology leads us to miss the real causes of these problems and to fail to appreciate the benefits that technology might offer us.
If the kids are alright, what we have on our hands really is a good old fashioned moral panic. Before we move on to look at why, I realise that I’ve failed to address Kanye’s main claim. His pocket hammer might not be making him depressed or ruining his children, but is he addicted to it? And is Tristan Harris right to claim that we have a “crisis of attention”? My intent here isn’t to disparage parents that have concerns about their and their children’s use of technology. Rather, it is to set aside the more hyperbolic claims so that we can look at the evidence with a little more clarity. In the next part, I’ll review some of the psychological evidence, and then in the third part look at the history and sociology of techno-panics.
Join the conversation