Enough with the moral panic over smartphones. The kids are all right

A recent article in the Atlantic brings parents of teenagers fresh alarming news about the deleterious effects of smart phones on their offspring. Written by a respected researcher in psychology, Jean M. Twenge, the article claims that the use of smartphones is directly correlated to teen suicide, depression and a sense of isolation and low self-esteem, particularly among teenage girls.

Before I give you the good news, let me share the bad news. If you have read her disturbing article and want to buy your teenager a “non-smart” phone – that is a phone that is not connected to the internet – you can’t. One of my teenage sons continually drops or loses his smart phone and very sensibly asked me to find a phone that was cheap and relatively unbreakable.

If you are a woman in your 50s you might like to try this experiment – it will only take six hours. Walk into any phone shop and explain to the 21-year-old behind the counter that you want a mobile phone that is not connected to the internet and does not have a glass screen. Then watch their face closely. The expression you will see says: “Emergency alert. We have a middle-aged woman who thinks she’s living in the year 2000. Call security.”

So unless you want your teenager roaming around without you having any ability to contact them, you are going to have to live with the smart phone. That ship has sailed.

But let’s get back to the claims in the Atlantic feature about the allegedly devastating effects of smart phones on teenagers. I too have done recent research into teenagers and their relationship to social and online media and its effects on how they form their identities and relationships. And I have reached very different conclusions – partly because I come from an academic discipline that is less interested in what technology is doing to young people than what young people are doing with it.

Twenge acknowledges that hand-wringing over new technology is nothing new. Fire, for instance, was a new form of technology for humans that came with benefits – for example, cooking. But also risks like burning to death.

With the advent of every new technological discovery comes the inevitable panic about how it is changing our world and exposing our young to terrible harm. Amazingly enough the advent of the novel in the late 18th century caused widespread panic about young women being corrupted by romantic fantasies. These days everyone boasts if their teenage girls read books.

What I found in my research with 13-17 year olds in Australian high schools in a large Australia Research Council-funded study contradicts many of the claims about smartphones and the isolating effects of social media.

Social media is called “social” for a reason. It is the virtual town square of many people’s lives – particularly teenagers. They are very aware of the risks – cyber bullying, being shamed for sending sexy pics to each other, and being preyed on by adult predators.

Many of them, particularly boys, said that social media made it easier to communicate. As one said, memorably: “I don’t know what to say to girls at the bus stop. But when I Facebook someone I like I can take time and think about what to write.”

Twenge has found some alarming results about the levels of depression and anxiety in the cohort of teens she studied. But there are always many other factors that need to be taken into account.

The first is that we are now, thankfully, far more aware of mental illness and quicker to address it when our children are young. In previous generations, many young people and adults just battled on and hid their feelings.

The second is that the role class, cultural backgrounds and the highly gendered nature of our society stands exposed for all to see on social media. It just maybe that the rise of smartphones and social media is giving us all a mirror to view our society and the damage that discrimination does more clearly.

Social media has blended the private and the public and, in the process, changed the way we see each other and how we see ourselves. Teenagers are no different to their parents, many of whom spend a lot of time on Facebook and Twitter and are often prone to “over-sharing”. Particularly, after that second glass of wine.

But we are all still human. We just know more about how other humans think and feel. And sometimes that’s a bonding experience and sometimes that’s horrific. Racism and sexism are rampant online. The level of abuse on the internet is appalling and we need to think about how we can all be better digital citizens when it comes to calling out bullying and abuse.

In the meantime, let’s quit the panic and think rationally about how we all manage social media and smartphones. Teenagers should not spend their lives staring at a screen. We all need balance and sensible parents should simply remove the phone or the laptop at bedtime. But let’s be honest – half the time we forget to do it because we’re checking our phone at the same time.

Perhaps our children find us hypocritical. Time to find time to put the screens aside and have dinner around the table. Until, that is, an argument ensues that can only be resolved by Dr Google.

This article was first published in The Guardian