Much has been written about how our society’s addiction to our smartphones, particularly among young people, is worsening our quality of life. I’ve lost count of the number of stories I’ve read about how our culture seems to have tiny attention spans due to social media addiction and about how kids these days don’t make eye contact anymore due to the smartphones that seem to be physically attached to their hands.
Recently, a friend described to me how during an orientation session for his new job, he sat next to two twenty-something fellow new hires who spent the entire time on their smartphones, only occasionally looking up at their supervisor who was giving the orientation.
While worrisome anecdotal stories like these abound, hard data is now emerging that only confirms these fears. In a sobering article at Family Life, Clay Routledge cites recent studies that show that extensive time spent on smartphones is leading to a host of alarming deficiencies in basic human relationships and interactions:
For example, in a field experiment, researchers found that having cellphones present during a meal with family or friends decreased enjoyment of that social experience. Another experiment that involved pairs of college students waiting together with or without their cellphones found that those who were phoneless were far more likely to smile at and interact with one another than those with cellphones. And one study found that having college students severely limit their daily social media use over a three-week period decreased both loneliness and depression. In short, a growing body of experimental research is providing empirical evidence that cellphones distract us from fully experiencing the real world.
Of particular concern are new findings that show that excessive smartphone use is negatively affecting the very fabric of family life. Routledge referenced another recent experiment involving parents and their interactions with their children at a museum in which “[t]he researchers found that parents in the high-use condition [of smartphones], compared to those in the low-use condition, reported feeling less attentive and less socially connected, and reported lower meaning in life while with their children at the museum.”
Perhaps most frightening is a Pew survey cited by Routledge:
Regarding smartphones and family life specifically, a Pew survey found that around half of teenagers say their parents are distracted by their phones when they are trying to talk to them, and over 70% of parents report that their teenagers are distracted when they are trying to have a conversation with them.
When screen addiction worsens even the most basic form of relational activity—talking to our family members—you know we have a serious problem. What Routledge alludes to, and what FRC has emphasized for years, is that family provides the most basic form of meaning in a person’s life through the love they receive, which in turn forms our core sense of self-worth. When this most fundamental source of meaning in our lives is compromised through the breakdown of familial communication and relationships, bad things happen.
A convincing argument has been made that the release of the iPhone in 2007 marked the beginning of a disturbing trend of mental health crisis in the post-Millennial generation. Indeed, a glut of mental health problems have sharply risen among young people since then, including rising rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
Less Screen Time, More Fulfillment
There’s no question that smartphones, tablets, and other internet-enabled portable devices have enhanced our lives in many ways. But as with any technology (or any worldly good, for that matter), believers know that moderation is key. In order to form healthy habits of technology use, we must see smartphones for what they are: a tool, not a necessity.
The primary way we can avoid smartphone addiction for our children and future generations is to limit the amount of time they spend looking at screens. How do we do this? Simply put, if they are out of sight, they are out of mind. If we diligently cultivate our homes as a place where learning and authentic leisure are the primary focus, the need for screens will rarely arise. This can also set an expectation of healthy use of screens that can enhance family life, like for communal viewing of movies or sporting events, for example.
At a certain point in a child’s life, they will see that their peers have smartphones, and they will naturally want to fit in. But if we raise our children with the understanding that they do not need a smartphone, and instead grow up with an expectation that they can work for and earn money to buy one at the age that they can get a job, they will be more likely to see smartphones not as necessities but as tools.
With this healthy perspective from a young age, it is far less likely that kids will form a smartphone addiction when they are older and have free access to them. As the emerging data suggests, and as we inherently know deep down, we are happier and more fulfilled when we spend less time engaging a screen and more time engaging each other.