How Bad Are Smartphones?

Chances are that you don’t need me for this. You already understand that the ubiquitous smartphone, to the naked eye at least, has wreaked havoc with human communications, with attention spans, with happiness itself. But if you need some ammo to make the case to others, read “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation” in the September issue of The Atlantic.

The author, having studied generational differences for a quarter-century, tries to show how measured aspects of teen behavior abruptly shifted around 2012, the moment in time at which ownership of smartphones by Americans moved past the 50% mark. She then pummels the reader with a host of indicia about the generation – she calls it iGen – that follows the one we call Millennial.

She shows how much we have changed just in the space of a few years. The new generation is more given depression. They are less likely to date, to have sex, to hang out with friends, even to learn to drive. Fewer find employment, or assert their independence from parents. (If previous years stretched adolescence to the late twenties, iGens are stretching childhood to the late teen years, she argues.) As they interact less with each other, they are less likely to murder each other but more likely to take their own lives. They get less sleep per night.

The case against smartphones is far from airtight. We often think in binary terms: is this good, or is it bad. Prof. Twenge gives us what we so often lack in studying our own community – hard data. But turning quantitative data into firm statements about the essence of things is not an easy matter. If “teens who visit social media sites every day are 19% more likely to be sleep deprived,” we don’t know enough about how significant a risk-factor Instagram use is to kids who check in every second day.

Of course, the more significant problem in translating data into policy is the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. As the author herself concedes, the association of all the recent changes with smartphone use is tenuous, at least as far as causality. Many other things have been changing at the same time. Perhaps it is those changes that are the real devils, producing both the trends she reports as well as smartphone usage itself. Do smartphones lead to depression and loneliness, or do they spike the use of smartphones? Or do a host of other changes in society produce both?

Still, as parents, educators, and ordinary concerned Jews, we don’t lead our lives as statisticians. We base our everyday decisions on what we observe, understanding that reality can be more nuanced than what we see, but still bound to take those observations as the best that we can work with. One paragraph in the article stands out for making the case for doing what few communities, if any, outside of Orthodox Judaism can do: pushing for community-wide policies regarding technology and social media. We should not be less cautious than Steve Jobs, who wisely denied his own children the great “gift” he bestowed upon humanity. I do not mean that we ought to ban them in most cases, so much as establish best-policy guidelines about ages at which they are introduced, the amount of time kids have access, and keeping them away from classrooms, family time, bedtime, and planned recreational time.

Here is the paragraph:

You might expect that teens spend so much time in these new spaces because it makes them happy, but most data suggest that it does not. The Monitoring the Future survey, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and designed to be nationally representative, has asked 12th-graders more than 1,000 questions every year since 1975 and queried eighth- and 10th-graders since 1991. The survey asks teens how happy they are and also how much of their leisure time they spend on various activities, including nonscreen activities such as in-person social interaction and exercise, and, in recent years, screen activities such as using social media, texting, and browsing the web. The results could not be clearer: 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 nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy.

Another thing to think about during Elul.

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17 Responses

  1. Steve Brizel says:

    For those interested in why computers will never be a substitute for the human conscience and emotions, take a look at this article.

    • dr. bill says:

      however, i am sure that given current AI capability, a computer can read previous posts and comments, and do a credible job, perhaps freeing up constant commenters for more productive work.

  2. Steve Brizel says:

    The linked article from the Atlantic is especially worth reading. If your married children don’t want you to allow your grandchildren who don’t normally have unfettered cellphone access to use your phone, I would think that a grandparent who values the relationship with his children and grandchildren should honor rather than circumvent that request.

  3. David F says:

    “Another thing to think about during Elul.”

    Perhaps another thing to think about during Elul in addition to the very excellent points made by Rabbi Adlerstein, is whether the scorn and abuse heaped upon Charedi leaders such as Rabbi Salomon and others, who tried to address this problem, was truly warranted. While there was certainly room for disagreement in matters of policy and technique, there’s little room to disagree with the overall effort that most likely has saved an entire generation of Jewish children from the ravages of the smartphone.
    Sadly, many frum communities who preferred to take a more liberal approach, now are left trying to pick up the pieces.

    • DF says:

      The reason why the charedi approach was rejected (and it was not with “scorn or abuse”) was because it advocated an obviously unworkable absolutist ban, and would simply have resulted in the mirror- image problem of the problems aptly summarized in the Atlantic. The “solution” it proposed – total isolation – was recognized as just as bad as the problem. Those Charedi families who tried it are right there on the floor next to the “more liberal” families, picking up the same pieces you just mentioned.

      But the truth is, it is counterproductive to speak of who has the better approach. All the 19th century approaches to modernity have been tried, from isolation to integration, and none have proven successful. In his article on that particular topic (Confronting Modernity) Dr. Shnayer Leiman quotes R. Shimon Schwab: (in part) “The followers of one approach must respect the followers of the other approach. They may not cast aspersions on the approach they reject. To the contrary, they must provide support for each other…”

      Yet another thing to think about during Elul.

  4. Steve Brizel says:

    Let me offer one productive purpose of an IPod-downloading and listening to shiurim. If you learn Daf Yomi or want to download shiurim from YU Torah, the IPod is a wonderful means to do so. For those of us commute via mass transit in NYC and other areas, you can cover a lot of ground learn at your own pace by listening to a shiur and marking up with your notes a small Gemara. It is a great way of maximizing your time on what can be either the best or worst part of your work day.

  5. David Reeder says:

    On a society-wide basis, when we add legalized cannabis to the widespread use of devices, we will end up with a very passive and low energy generation, which will be experiencing its reality “somewhere else”. Picture the sloths in the movie Zootopia.

  6. joel rich says:

    Quite a few good points about the importance of actual data in decision making and the limitations of studies in the category of causation vs. correlation.
    Of course technology has always been viewed as a threat to the status quo (printing press, telephone..)and we eventually find a way to make peace with it, perhaps as suggested in this piece. We remain on the battlefield carrying the banner that (per R’YBS) torah is relevant in all times and places.

    “Still, as parents, educators, and ordinary concerned Jews, we donā€™t lead our lives as statisticians. We base our everyday decisions on what we observe, understanding that reality can be more nuanced than what we see, but still bound to take those observations as the best that we can work with.”

    Halevai our leaders would apply this to other areas such as obesity/lack of physical exercise, poverty…
    Joel Rich

  7. tzippi says:

    I can’t read the article from this computer but will definitely check it out next time I’m at the library.
    I’ve heard Rabbi Nechemia Gottlieb of TAG speak several times on behalf of local schools and organizations. His message is, leave the frum stuff aside for a minute (but not altogether) and focus on the human toll technology takes. There are a number of excellent books he’s recommended, including Virtually Yours by Dr. Elias Aboujaoude and The Big Disconnect by Dr. Catherine Stein-Adair. (I’ve read the former and it’s profoundly sobering.) While it is impossible to avoid technology we can still be in control, and this is an approach that might be meaningful for the kids, too.

  8. Bob Miller says:

    Aside from social aspects, the problem is that the same powerful medium can very conveniently disseminate a lot of truth and a lot of lies/filth. Trusting it to deliver the former sets one up for the latter. Who is able to prepare our youth, or really anyone, to use the loaded gun responsibly? If no one can or will do this effectively, the tool is better left alone altogether. But anything banned becomes more attractive! In the end, it doesn’t matter so much which cool gadget is the latest problem. What does matter is giving people the moral and mental tools to make correct decisions.

  9. Yossi says:

    One thing worth remembering- we don’t even need to go to scientific studies or magazines for this point, because probably most of us if we are honest see this in our own lives. Anybody in a waiting room add a doctor or anything like that is looking down at their phone instead of sitting peacefully. Now of course, one can make the argument that you used to sit the air and space out but now you can do something constructive on your phone. Of course, the question is if people are really doing something constructive.

    Are use my phone for many constructive things, but the bottom line is the amount of time collectively that I’ve wasted on the phone and computer and on stupid YouTube videos is tremendous. Of course, you can make the argument that we lived with tv and came out ok.

    But what does OK mean? We’ve been exposed to things that people should never see and values that none of us subscribe to. Now, if there is some murder or shooting or terrorist attack or killing caught on camera, you will see it even on the but what does OK mean? We’ve been exposed to things that people should never see and values that none of us subscribe to. Now, if there is some murder or shooting or terrorist attack or killing caught on camera, you will see it even on the frum news sites. Till the Internet, I have never seen someone die. Now I’ve seen many. Charlie Hebdo, Isis, and other assorted videos.

    Is the distractions, the indecency, the pornography, the time wasting, the attention span killing, it all takes a huge toll. Being pro technology, or not anti-, might just mean that you recognize that it’s here and that we have to deal with it. It does not mean that we have to make believe that this was a step in a positive direction.

    The fact that people are less sexually active probably has a number of reasons, and as religious Jews that can’t be something that were against, but there of been some prominent articles in the New York Times and New Yorker really pointing out that for a lot of mails, that’s because they are so lost in digital pornography that the real world just doesn’t compete. And as religious Jews that can’t be something that were against, but there of been some prominent articles in the New York Times and New Yorker really pointing out that for a lot of mails, that’s because they are so lost in digital pornography that the real world just doesn’t compete. Also, in another article recently advanced the theory after having seen a drop amongst married couples as well, that perhaps when you are binge watching on Netflix or catching up on all the videos and your Facebook and Instagram feeds, there is no impetus to emotionally connect with your spouse cause you’re both on your devices.

    Of course, how well you’re able to deal with the challenge will very much depends on how good you are at impulse and self-control, but for many people even putting the religious issues aside, dealing with this effectively really requires a radical approach.

  10. dr. bill says:

    I for one do not discount the problems with smartphones and the immediacy that leads to a lessening of thoughtful response that only non-spontaneity has a chance to create. the impact on attention spans, enhanced by long complex sugyot, the ability to synthesize multiple views, or analytical differentiation, is troubling.

    that said, blanket opposition has other troubling consequences.

  11. Allan katz says:

    years ago a technology and internet educator said that the problem with kids is that they have grown up seeing the internet purely as a social medium and not a learning medium. I am interested in the author’s and other views about smart phones and internet use for adults without filters

    • 1) The internet can and does provide wonderful blessings when used properly. 2) I oppose the use of smartphones and the internet without the use of filters, for users of any age. I started writing about filters many, many years ago. Using them has never interfered with my pursuit of knowledge, or my professional responsibilities

  12. Neveh Zion says:

    Hi, we shared this article to our FB page along with a comment, and received an interesting reply – to which we hope you might respond.

    First, our comment, “Sometimes we get things right long before the researches do. And sometimes we have to hear it from other sources before we’ll take things seriously. Either way, it’s about time.”

    And a reader’s reply, “I’m not sure what you “get right.” Yes smartphone use can be addictive and there are downsides. But 99% of readers of this post are reading this on a smartphone, and already know that smartphones can interfere with relationships etc. So what people really need is ideas about balance etc. Many of us use smartphones to vastly improve our lives in many ways, from capturing special moments on camera to calling an uber, to listening to a shiur or a podcast. Some neveh alumni became charedim and don’t use smartphones or the internet, but for most of us this is a poor choice of focus. Share something inspiring, share something positive, and cool it with the charedi anti-ism.”

    TIA for your response. The referenced post is here:

    • There is no shortage of good advice about balance, in both general and Jewish circles. I published one myself a few years ago – the very wise recommendations of a dati-Leumi girls high school in Israel. What is lacking is not the advice, but the seriousness and motivation to follow through. Articles like the one in the Atlantic help people who lean in the right direction develop the confidence to follow through.

  13. Steve Brizel says:

    For those interested, I highly reccomend R Daniel Feldman’s book on Lashon Hara and social media. R Feldman has a masterful knowledge of both the halachic issues and the literature in the secular academic and journalistic worlds re social media.

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