Smartphones are not the source of all social ills

Phones and social media are easy scapegoats for our all too human follies

Artillery Row

The argument against smartphones and social media is familiar and repetitive: they steal our time, harvest our attention, farm our data. Tech companies are called attention merchants and algorithmic exploiters; we are all supposed to be hooked on dopamine which is immiserating us. And now the psychologist Jonathan Haidt is promoting the idea that smartphones and social media have “rewired” the brains of a generation of children, which makes them depressed and anxious. The recent rise in rates of suicide and self-harm among young people are beng blamed on phones and social media.

But Haidt’s claims are not uncontroversial. And more broadly, we need to account for the many benefits of smartphones. New technology is never a simple good. The idea that technology brings disruption is a cliche for good reason. People in the past were hostile to all sorts of mundane technology, like bicycles and water drainage. The question is not whether phones and social media are good or bad, but what the net effects are, who gains and loses, and how we ought to manage them. 

Do we really believe that the effects of this new technology are so different to, say, the arrival of landline phones and cars?

First, let’s review the case that smartphones and social media have created a miserable generation. The evidence is less certain than it appears. Tom Chivers and Stuart Ritchie pointed out on their podcast that rates of suicide in Norway, Denmark, and the UK have not increased. If phones and Instagram are harming teenage girls in the USA, why are they not doing so in other countries? Amy Orben argues you can only explain 0.36% of the variation in teenage girls’ depression with phones and social media. When Orben looked at more recent data, she found even smaller effects — so small as to be irrelevant. Another recent paper suggests that the rise in suicide rates in the USA may be due to changes in the way data is collected.

Psychologist Chris Ferguson has a forthcoming meta-study of the work in this area. Many studies about the negative effects of social media ask participants to reduce their social usage, which means those participants likely know what the study is about, biassing their response. Those who don’t want to reduce social use may drop out. Data from these studies is not widely shared, either. And while the studies find some relationship, the effect size is statistically insignificant: if social media does make you depressed, the effect is so small it’s almost impossible to measure. Aaron Brown has shown that Haidt over-states his case relative to the findings of the studies he relies on. On her YouTube channel the physicist Sabine Hossenfelder has summarised the evidence that social media makes you depressed is weak.

Instagram seems to be a net negative for girls aged 12-14, but it is a very mixed picture. As the economist Tyler Cowen says, many things have a mixed effect on girls at that age, including wearing glasses, clothes shopping, and, as in the film Mean Girls, talking to their friends. Do we really believe that the effects of this new technology are so different to, say, the arrival of landline phones and cars? When was the golden age of happiness among girls aged 12-14?

The truest summary might be that we don’t properly understand how phones and social media affect us yet. That, of course, has been true of all new technologies, including printed books. 

The most persuasive argument isn’t that phones cause unhappiness on their own, but that it exacerbates an existing trend. Children used to be much more free to play outside and take risks. Cars ended that. It is impossible to allow modern children the run of their neighbourhoods as they had in the 1950s when we have traffic levels (with heavier, faster cars) of modern times. Stuck inside, children will obviously use screens more as Zvi Mowshowitz says. Similarly, teenagers began reading far fewer books decades before smartphones were invented. Phones may have exacerbated that trend, but they certainly didn’t cause it. 

Amongst all this clamouring, we risk overlooking the immense benefits of phones and social media

Although we live in London, my daughter regularly climbs trees. There’s one particular tree, a tall cherry, in the communal garden of our block of flats, that she climbs all the time. Wherever I see her up there, I feel sick. I wasn’t a tree climber and she gets quite high. Mostly, though, I don’t see her. The garden is gated so she has the run of it, with her brother and friends, unbothered by me. This is a strange paradox: by being in an ultra-safe gated garden, she is free to do risky things. Without the danger of passing cars, she has something closer to an old fashioned childhood: free time, where she takes risks, without being constantly supervised. If we can solve that problem, many children will likely be much happier. It isn’t all about phones. 

And amongst all this clamouring, we risk overlooking the immense benefits of phones and social media. 

Scotland’s government has passed a law that makes it criminal to communicate in a way that “a reasonable person would find threatening or abusive” with the intention of stirring up hatred. This offence also includes “insulting” behaviour. All that has to be proved is that stirring up hatred was “likely”, not intended. Under these new laws, offenders can receive up to seven years in prison. 

Governments have a long history of passing egregiously illiberal speech laws. What’s new is that we now have Twitter, where J.K. Rowling is not only opposing the law in her own tweets but promising to repeat the words of any women who are arrested. And the Scottish Government has already backed down against Rowling, an early sign of the problems it will have trying to implement such an egregious and illiberal law. Elon Musk was mocked when he bought Twitter for saying he wanted to solve free speech. J.K. Rowling is showing that it can in fact be part of the solution for preserving liberal values. Standing up against the overmighty state is much easier with social media. 

What better safeguard against a government that wants to roll out an oppressive and restrictive law than the millions of phones its citizens are carrying around, all capable of accessing the internet? There’s a reason why access is limited in China and Russia.

On a more mundane level, phones and social media give us access to the world in a way that was unimaginable to previous generations. In the last few days social media has meant I booked tickets to a Sally Rooney event, discovered a new piano recording by Vikingar Ólafsson, watched the science explainer videos of Sabine Hossenfelder, messaged a scientist on Twitter and been sent their research paper, discovered and read a short story by Somerset Maugham, learned that Beethoven had a low genetic predisposition towards musical accomplishment, discovered a magazine of Nigerian literary criticism, and watched a video with my children of a komodo dragon eating a pony whole (recommended). Other things I have done include reading a poem by John Donne, using AI to explain a technical article I didn’t understand, chatting with subscribers to my Substack about Shakespeare, and writing about how late bloomers find their calling in life. And this is not to mention the pictures of my baby nephew that I get sent on WhatsApp. 

Describing any of this in the terms that critics use — attention merchants, data harvesting, engagement bait, and so on — would be insane. I grew up in the nineties, when cultural works were harder to find and more expensive: I don’t want to go back. 

There are major social benefits, too. Whenever I hear people denigrating social media, I think of a woman I once worked with, a social media strategist. I asked her why she did the work she did, and she told me that, in her words, she had been an odd and friendless child, who was unhappy, but then discovered friends on the internet as a young teenager, had her blog promoted on MySpace, and became a social, connected, happy person. Her passion became her career. She was not only highly accomplished at her work, she truly enjoyed it. 

Should we regret what happened to her and the many others like that? Or should we marvel at the simplicity and cheapness of this solution to isolation? Some people respond to this by pointing out that many people waste their time online, watching cat videos or scrolling dance videos on TikTok. What were they doing before — reading Tolstoy? No, they were watching breakfast television and sitcoms. And in my experience, the people who make those arguments are the least likely to have ever been onto those platforms.

You might think we live in a philistine age. But the internet didn’t cause that. YouTube is full of people gushing about their favourite works of literature. There are multiple online lecture series about the great works of music and art. The humanities are flourishing on Substack. BookTok increases sales of literary novels as well as of commercial fiction. People were, once upon a time, horrified at the corrosive moral effects of novels, of the idling encouraged by radio listening, of the slack-jawed worship of the television, and so on. The internet journalist Katherine Dee writes persuasively about the way that the internet is its own sort of culture that has replaced some of what we used to do with novels and films. You might not like it, but a lot of people have a rich imaginative life online. Today’s TikTok videos are hardly to be sneered at by a generation who spent their evenings watching Friends.

Making good choices with all technology is always difficult

When I make this positive case to my wife, she reminds me of my own luddite attitudes. For several years, I lived without a smartphone. These days I try to keep my usage to under two hours and sometimes have it turned off all day. (I often fail, but to be clear, that is because I am busy reading interesting articles and doing research. I am having fun.) For many years, I was half-hearted about social media. I did not have WhatsApp. My children are homeschooled and their screen time is quite limited. I am appalled that my thirteen year old brother has a smartphone and is allowed to waste so much time on it. 

But that was the wrong attitude. The best approach is not all or nothing, but to find ways of maximising the benefits and minimising the negatives—as we do with many things.

Today, I have it all: iPhone, Twitter, WhatsApp. The benefits were too big to be ignored. My anti-phone attitudes go beyond smartphones. I used to unplug the landline in my in-laws house while I worked. The unsolicited ringing of a phone was as welcome to me as the bell that rings when Mephistopheles appears. And while I still dislike the way phones of all descriptions can interrupt me, I prefer smartphones to what came before. It’s easier to be uncontactable. I haven’t heard a ring or ping for many years, having only ever used silent mode. And the smartphone gives me access to the internet, where I find articles, books, and music. And where I can talk to people I like talking to, in a medium that suits me. My social engagements originate in group chats or through Twitter. 

Phones and social media give us choice. I don’t want to go on Facebook, so I don’t. As with all technology, we have to learn to adapt to them properly. I don’t want to ban my brother from using phones and the internet wisely. As with so many of the things teenagers start discovering, the aim should be to teach them the best use of it, not to frame the debate in blunt and simplistic “good or bad” terms. If we weren’t so polarised and politicised about everything, their benefits would be blindingly obvious. 

All technology is a mixed blessing. The printing press gave us all greater access to Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the Bible — but it also enabled revolutions and rebellions. The invention of the movies gave us a new medium of high art, but then a mass of trivial television. Phones and social media can be distracting and enraging, but they are also a cheap and easy cure for isolation, a way of connecting you with your interests and expanding your horizons, and a method of enabling people to participate in a culture that is larger and more varied than their offline life. And they help us resist domineering governments. 

Making good choices with all technology is always difficult. That is what we ought to talk about, rather than following the easy narrative that phones are bad and tech companies are exploiting us. It isn’t true and repeating it won’t help any young people.

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