Opinion

The great smartphone panic of 2018

Are you reading this on your smartphone? Then get over it.

What's the appropriate social media response to the burgeoning panic about smartphones and social media? Maybe it's #FirstWorldProblems or perhaps #ThisIsWhyWeCantHaveNiceThings? I will admit a soft spot for a good GIF based on the classic Battlestar Galactica catchphrase, "All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again." Seems appropriate given how that TV show was about a technology backlash that keeps happening over and over again.

And so it is with concerns about the social consequences of media tech. The 17th-century French scholar Adrien Baillet fretted that "the multitude of books which grows every day in prodigious fashion" would destroy civilization just like the "fall of the Roman Empire." The early days of radio spawned fears that the "compelling excitement of the loudspeaker" would distract children from their homework. In 1961, FCC Chairman Newton Minow famously complained that television was a "vast wasteland," often little more than "a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, Western bad men, Western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons." (Of course to modern sensibilities, that all probably sounds pretty good. Especially a show called Blood and Thunder.) Just recently I wrote about spurious claims that Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare explain why young men don't work more.

Now, a decade after the iPhone made its debut, people are discovering smartphones and apps aren't immune to the notion of trade-offs. Yes, the mobile technology revolution is a transformative event that gives billions easy access to humanity's stock of knowledge through a small pane of glass in their pockets. The data being generated will help fight crime, epidemics, and traffic. In developing nations, more mobile phones mean more connectedness and economic growth.

Sounds pretty good. But, unsurprisingly, all that enhanced power of access and collaboration has downsides. After some former Facebook executives expressed guilt for building a platform dependent on "dopamine-driven feedback loops" and designed to foster dependence, the company acknowledged that some types of social-media use could harm users' mental health.

And activists are now complaining that Apple doesn't do enough to give parents sufficient control over their children's iPhones. They want the company to take more seriously the potential mental-health impact of kids spending so much time on their devices. Or as a clickbait headline in a viral Atlantic piece recently put it, "Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?" The story presents some data suggesting smartphones have made the cohort between 1995 and 2012 — iGen, as the author calls them — more psychologically "vulnerable" and "seriously unhappy."

But ultimately that headline conforms to Betteridge's law: "Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no." iGen is not yet a generation destroyed. Yes, the data show teens today are more likely to say they feel lonely than in 2007, when the iPhone was introduced. But in so many other ways they seem healthier, reporting lower rates of drug use, less violence, and safer sexual behavior. Millennials overall are also pretty optimistic about the future.

The government isn't going to ban smartphones for the under-18 crowd. The end result of this upturn in concern will probably be more intuitive phone controls and better apps for parents, as well as for those adults who have trouble staying off Twitter. And then we can return to wondering if AI-infused robots or AI-enhanced humans will gobble up all of society's jobs and wealth. That is a best-case scenario.

A less-welcome, though lower probability outcome is if the burgeoning anti-tech movement successfully weaponizes these mild health and safety concerns in its effort to dismantle or heavily regulate the mega-platforms and other large, successful tech firms, which suffered a PR annus horribilis in 2017. Big Tech's strong counterargument has until now been that they are providing customers with valued products. It's why Jeff Bezos is now a centibillionaire. But what if that product is widely thought to be bad for consumers? All that economic value suddenly looks a bit less valuable, and Big Tech just begins to resemble Big Tobacco.

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