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On smartphones and children

May 08,2018 - Last updated at May 08,2018

It is time to reign in smartphone use among children.

As a teacher and headmaster, I do not suggest this lightly. I understand the educational benefits of technology when well used, and I recognise that many techno-enthusiasts, not to mention my own students and faculty, will dismiss such an argument as grumpy, impractical and anti-progress.

Nonetheless, the history of technological invention tells us that the unintended consequences of new technology often remain obscure to the first generation of users. DDT eradicated crop-destroying insects and mosquitos, saving many from hunger and malaria; it also damaged the ecosystem and endangered human health. The automobile provided speedy travel and unprecedented mobility, but also, according to NASA, became the world’s largest contributor to climate change, as well as a leading cause of accidental death worldwide.

So it is with the hidden costs of smartphone use among children and teens. There is mounting evidence that excessive mobile phone use among children and adolescents is unhealthy; psychologically, social-emotionally and perhaps even physically.

Research has demonstrated a strong link between mobile phone use and increased levels of anxiety and depression. In a widely discussed piece in The Atlantic, Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, has argued that the “arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health”. Since 1975, the National Institute of Drug Abuse has measured student happiness. The most recent results, cited by Twenge, demonstrate that “teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on non-screen activities are more likely to be happy”.

Twenge also documents a dramatic uptick in loneliness, depression and distress since 2012, the very moment when the percentage of Americans owning smartphones surpassed 50 per cent. Given the very high use of smartphones among Jordanian youth, there is reason to believe that Jordan will see, if it has not already seen, similar trends. 

For all of the hype about connectivity, there is a great deal of evidence that children have never been more ill at ease or socially isolated, especially from parents and adults. Adolescents have a natural tendency to withdraw within themselves: mobile phones aid in this retreat. MIT researcher Sherryy Turkle has written powerfully about the impact smartphone use has had on the social and emotional lives of children. Her conclusion? Young people are less skilled at authentic social interaction. She calls this the “flight from conversation”, and she documents family and peer dynamics where young people and adults are increasingly “together alone”. Smartphone use often encourages disconnection and head-down behaviour that impedes the development of important interpersonal skills: communication, listening, collaboration, negotiation and conflict resolution.

Most alarming is the possible health impacts of smartphone use. Truth be told, we do not actually know what those are. It is simply too early to know. Although the science on the health impact of mobile phone use is far from settled, there has been credible, peer-reviewed research drawing a correlation between cancer and smartphone use. Of course, there remain many unanswered questions, there always is with science and the potential long-term impact of new technologies. How much use is too much? Are children, whose brains are more plastic and vulnerable than adults, more at risk? 

But the inconclusiveness of the research to date is enough reason for parents and schools to proceed cautiously. Scientists and ethicists call this “the precautionary principle”. The idea, as Mark Hertsgaard and Mark Dowie write in a recent investigative essay on Big Wireless in The Nation, “that society does not need absolute proof of hazard to place limits on [it]”.

For their part, Big Wireless has sought to silence scientists who have raised questions about the health impact of smartphone use. According to Hertsgaard and Dowie, there is evidence of an intentional campaign by the smartphone industry, and its paid lobbyists, to sow uncertainty about possible health risks of smartphone use and to discredit reputable scientific studies. Those efforts should not surprise us. Similar misinformation campaigns have been conducted by big tobacco companies, which, for years, sought to obscure the link between cancer and smoking, and, more recently, by the oil and gas industries, which for many years denied the existence of man-made climate change. 


What to do? 


In my experience, young people thrive in the absence of technology. It opens up new possibilities for face-to-face interaction, friendship, community, playfulness and creativity, not to mention athletics and time in nature. At a recent school camping trip, where phones were banned, students reported that they actually had more fun with friends. In the end, students thanked us for instituting the limits. Outdoor, sleep-over summer camps have long banned phones. In Sweden, parents and students support a smartphone ban in schools. 

One does not need to ban phones entirely; that may, in fact, backfire. What students, and adults, do need, however, are regular vacations from smart devices. There should be times during each day, at home and at school, that are phone free, and there should be no-phone spaces, where smartphone use is limited or prohibited entirely. 

This will not be easy. Mobile phones are powerfully seductive, even addictive. There is a move to include mobile phone addiction, and related conditions like “nomophobia”(no mobile phone phobia), among the disorders catalogued by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, the gold standard for assessing psychiatric disease.

Parents, moreover, have grown accustomed to communicating with their children whenever they wish. I have spoken to parents who text or phone their children almost hourly. The truth is that too many iGen parents are tethered to their children in ways that do not always promote their children’s independence and autonomy.

The only way forward is for parents and schools to partner and work together to place some reasonable limits on smartphone use. Children do not need to be on all the time. So let us take advantage of the summer months. To unplug. To silence our phones. Let us disconnect so that we can really connect with family and friends.


The writer is the headmaster of the King’s Academy. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times

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