“Kids need smartphones. Get over it.” Thus says Jeanne Sager at The Week. I’ll give Ms. Sager credit for going all in here. Her advocacy for giving preteen children iPhones is full throated and unequivocal, which is better than some of the self-tortured do-we-or-don’t-we parenting we often see nowadays.
Unfortunately, she’s completely wrong. Her argument is surprisingly intuitive and defenseless: Kids are safer when you give them smartphones. There’s not much in the way of evidence, though, beyond a relatively banal observation that we don’t have as many payphones as we used to, and that kids who are out late at night without a way to phone home are by definition in an unsafe situation. Both points are true. The problem is that they are almost totally irrelevant compared to the mammoth moral case against smartphones.
The idea that kids are unsafe unless they have the most cutting edge, the most unfiltered access to digital technology is just absurd. Not only are there phones that can allow calls home without the kind of private internet access that common sense and almost every expert warn against, but it’s hard to imagine what kind of situations a preteen could get herself into that would doom her to vulnerability without an iPhone. For one thing, most 12 year olds travel exclusively in packs, and you can bet your next paycheck that someone–likely everyone–in that pack has some sort of phone (many teens nowadays get together just so everyone can look at their phone). The relationship between mobile accessibility and safety is more complicated when teens start driving, of course, which is why many parents make the driver’s license a benchmark for phones. That’s understandable. Reasoning from lack of payphones to lack of safety is less so.
My wife and I had slightly different experiences with phone technology growing up. I was a senior in high school when I got my first flip phone, which could make all the calls to Mom and Dad I wanted and could text some friends for a cool $.25 per “hey man.” My wife, on the other hand, was way ahead of me: At 7th grade she got her first pay-as-you-go phone. Though our experiences with cell phones were very different, we each got our first smartphones in college. And she and I tell each other regularly how grateful we are such tech never fell into our hands before that. For all their usefulness, smartphones are an intensely absorbing media. They invite and empower private worlds where people are reduced to pixels and life’s meaning is dependent on the powerful neurological rewards of computerized community. Indeed, many observers worry that smartphones are reprogramming teens to retreat further into themselves, leading to a stunning rise in loneliness, anxiety, depression, and other problems.
Of course, one could object that smartphones have been wrongly accused, and that sociologists and cultural commentators are mistaking use for abuse in all this analysis. I don’t think that’s a good argument, but it is at least an argument. The case offered by Ms. Sager is not an argument. It’s an unfounded fear that fails, as so much of modern parenting often does, to discern the different kinds of “unsafe.” Unsafe because you don’t have a way to phone home at 10pm might be a kind of unsafe, but being totally alone with a piece of technology that offers unmitigated connection between you and the web, as well as the promise of secrecy and the thrill of maintaining an utterly private existence online, is also unsafe. Threats to teens’ cognitive development, social adaptation, and emotional well-being are every bit as serious as the dangers of violent online bullying and harassment. And I haven’t even mentioned the well-documented pandemics of pornography and sexual exploitation.
I commend Ms. Sager for writing a piece that few others are willing to write. I’m sure she speaks for many other parents when she says that the benefits of mobile connections outweigh all the risks. But as a relatively new parent (for 1 year), I too have been thinking about how I want my children to relate to mobile technology. And almost everything I see, hear, and read leads me to believe that children are a great reason to hand in my smartphone, not a reason to buy more. We are only beginning as a culture to understand the formative effects of our tech, but even the preliminary lessons are persuasive and damning.
I sometimes hear worries about the “digital gap” in education. I’m presumably supposed to be concerned that my son won’t be as technologically savvy as the other 10 year olds who have iPhones and smartwatches. But I often suspect that what’s presented as concerns for safety and equality are really just disguised anxieties about being lapped by the Joneses. If smartphones and social media have trained us to do anything, they’ve trained us to always be aware of what everybody else is doing. I don’t want such a fate for my son. I want him to lose himself in something true, good, and beautiful, not constantly staring at #content. I want my son to know his friends as human beings with faces, bodies, and feelings, not just as avatars that he can friend and de-friend at leisure. I don’t want my son to feel Dad doesn’t care if he has a private online life.
That’s why I won’t be getting my son a smartphone anytime soon. I don’t think he’ll be unsafe because of it, but if there’s ever a situation we’re worried about, there are low-tech emergency options available. Often in life, a solution to a problem just takes a little creative thinking–the kind of creative thinking, by the way, that’s a lot harder when you’ve been raised on YouTube.