My latest editorial in Christian Standard:
Gather any group of people over age 40 and you’ll hear frustration about how much time younger people spend on their phones. “I’m at a restaurant watching a couple,” a friend told me recently. “They are obviously on a date, and yet they are both staring at their phones instead of talking to each other.”
The friend texted me this information from her own phone.
It’s true that smartphone use is out of control for many of us. One study found the average user checks his phone upwards of 150 times a day. Allowing a generous eight hours for sleep, this means many of us are still looking at our screens more than 10 times an hour. Some researchers have even equated our psychological addiction to apps and websites with the physical addiction smokers have for nicotine; in a recent Atlantic Monthly article, advocates of more responsible software design compared the tech industry’s creation of apps to the Big Tobacco companies that pushed cigarettes.
One reason for our addiction to phones and tablets is the principle of variable rewards. Psychologists (and app developers) have known for years that when “prizes”—such as Facebook likes, instant messages, comments, and retweets—happen on a variable schedule, we are likely to check for them more compulsively.
However, whether we blame phone addiction on our own lack of willpower or the scheming of Silicon Valley, the technology itself is neutral—and able to be used for good. Instead of trying to keep teens off their phones, Christ in Youth’s Kingdom Worker Week encourages kids to use social media, video, photos, and live streaming as a way to explore faith and share it with others. In fact, Chris Roberts, CIY’s communications director, estimates more than 15,000 teens participated in the event in some way last fall.
My own teenage stepkids are digital natives, much happier with a screen in hand, and like many parents, my husband and I have struggled to determine boundaries for their use of technology. As Roberts told me, “For many teenagers, these phones are part of their identity. In fact, some have said they would rather stop breathing than lose their phone.” One wonders what use the phone would be during acute oxygen deprivation, but the point is made—instant communication and real-time experience sharing are now an important part of most young people’s daily lives.
It’s healthy to set limits on screen time (and to ignore phones on a first date), but mobile technology isn’t going away. Instead of lamenting our kids’ dependence on these devices, let’s find new ways to leverage it for something better.