It’s Time to Quit Blaming Smartphones

 
Hardly a day goes by when I do not encounter at least one article bemoaning the “tragedy” brought upon us by smart phones and social media. If you believe the hype, today’s youth are going to hell in a hand basket, lured by the incessant clicking and swiping of their ever-evolving digital devices. We are losing our very ability to interact with the people around us, these doomsday prophets warn.

And I get it–we are subjecting ourselves (especially our youth) to a profound social experiment. It’s hard to say definitively what impact growing up immersed in digital device use is going to have, but preliminary studies seem to indicate that they do affect our socialization and even our very brain chemistry. Social media contributes to a polarized society where it’s all too easy to interact only with those with whom we already agree.

But we can also be led to the implied conclusion that somehow everything was just fine before the digital age. We can be led to the faulty conclusion that kids were living in a robust, vibrant social utopia where they played outside with other kids and where everyone sat on front porches singing, playing games and listening to grandma’s tales of yesteryear–and then along came smartphones and social media and all that was gone.

Except… that’s not how I experienced history at all.

I grew up Gen X. I grew up in a world of shocking, mind-numbing social isolation. You can’t blame digital devices, because they only existed in science fiction movies at the time. The World War II generation and baby boomers may have grown up in small country towns and tight-knit city neighborhoods, but virtually none of that made it to my generation. I grew up longing for it, and so did many of my peers. Many people of my generation have labored intensely to discover and rediscover community through travel, intentional living situations and all sorts of other social experiments. The need is huge. In fact, community was one of the reasons I initially got involved in Christian ministry–it seemed to promise stronger community connections than anything else in the secular world.

The World War II folks and baby boomers gave us the radio and television. They gave us air conditioning and climate control, which afforded us the ability to live locked in our own homes and automobiles, sealed off from the rest of the world. They gave us suburban sprawl, where kids could only interact with other kids if their parents drove them in a car to meet them at pre-appointed times. They gave us neighborhoods that entirely depended on cars and where kids rarely played together outside on pesticide-laden lawns. Older folks ran to the suburbs, away from the nosy drama of those tight-knit families and neighborhoods, thankful for the closeness they had growing up but anxious for some privacy. But my generation did not benefit from the closeness they ran from.

THIS is the world that existed when smartphones and social media arrived. It was a world hungry–dare I say, desperate–for community. Most kids from most countries around the world would be absolutely shocked to realize the level of social isolation that most American children experience. To compound matters, if a kid has any kind of shyness or social awkwardness, you have a recipe for a walking solitary confinement. Many American kids live in a quiet misery of profound isolation.

It is hard for most Americans to realize how socially isolated we are. Most Americans have gotten used to it, and many have found ways to cope, but there is nothing even remotely normal or healthy about it. In another country, a walk to the town market might involve lots of conversations and interactions along the way. In America, we are locked in the isolation chambers known as automobiles with the windows rolled up. After work and school, Americans lock themselves in their homes, often without even cracking a window, glued to their televisions but divorced from human contact. It’s bad enough to live like this as an adult, but it’s horrific to grow up this way.

Suddenly, the digital age happens. Into a world starving for social interaction, digital devices opened a door. Suddenly, that kid locked in his suburban bedroom all alone could now chat it up with his schools friends or anyone else in the world. You can play games, share information, find a date, have long conversations and discover the world. Family members displaced around the country and globe due to a heavily globalized job market can now stay in touch and be part of each other’s daily lives. Instead of just passively watching a TV, smart phones and social media allow us a chance to at least interact with others. These devices may not be perfect, but they are better than the radio and television by the sheer fact that they are interactive rather than passive.

Smartphones and social media did not create the problem. They are a response to a problem that existed long before them. If you don’t like it that your kid has his nose buried in his smart phone, instead of taking away the phone, you might want to make sure there are other options in his life for social interaction.

The irony is bitter: Older generations glued to their television sets complaining about the younger generations interacting with others on their smartphones. If I had to pick, I’d say the younger folks are improving upon what was handed down to them. Let’s cut them some slack!

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Review & Commentary

  • Tommy Rannanpää

    There was a saying “teens sit by the computer and do nothing” that was 10-15 years ago. The fact however was that teens did a lot of stuff, probably more than any previous generation – sitting in front of the screen, modelling, playing, painting, writing, listening to and making music….
    Now we have a new generation sitting (walking and even biking) in front of the phone. Every earlier generation has it’s problems to adjust to new things.

    Computers and smartphones are great, we as a church just have problems to adjust to it, as you alll know, we can’t change so that computers and phones would be used in churches… then we rather sit down and whine about those who use them.

  • Betty Jo Critchfield

    Yes, the social isolation has been growing unheeded. I think you make a good point about how we were primed for smart phones. However, as a bus rider in my town, I no longer get to even chat with people standing at the bus stop or beside me in the seats. Parents are dragging their children along by the hand, oblivious to them as the parents twitter, etc. If we accept that digital media is not the cause but just fills an empty need, then it is even more like a drug addiction than just the overt effects on the brain. What do you suggest is a solution?

    • Frankly

      As far as solution goes, that is tough. A lot of people are exploring intentional communities, tiny house living and trying to rehabilitate downtown neighborhoods with more green space and walkable paths.

      For better or for worse, community thrives when people need each other. All our inventions give us so much independence, but they also give us so much isolation, too.

      I had a great experience when the power went off for a couple weeks due to a storm. Neighbors starting coming out of their houses to talk to neighbors. We had nothing else to do, and it was great. As soon as the power came back on, we said we would keep those relationships going but we didn’t.