Save the children: regulate smartphone use

Eli Zaret, New Oakland Community Liaison

Eli Zaret, New Oakland Community Liaison

Actual texting exchange with my now 20-something daughter, Alison, a few years back:

Me: I’ve been calling you and get no response.

Alison: Dad – you’ve left me 2 VMs. I’ve asked you not to! Text or email me only. I don’t have time to answer my phone. Only call me in an emergency.

Me: But since you’re too busy to answer your phone, does that mean I have to text you to tell you that it’s an emergency and I need to call you?

Weren’t cell phones invented to make calling mobile and convenient? Now, with many young people, using a phone for its original intent has become smart2taboo.  Cell phones are instead for taking pictures, watching TV, videos and movies, playing video games, listening to music, checking social media and texting — and it’s contributing to a lack of empathy and an escape from the real world of human interaction.

smartCommon Sense Media, a nonprofit focused on helping children, parents and educators navigate the world of media and technology reports that on any given day teens in the United States spend about nine hours using media for their enjoyment.

Nine hours!

That’s more time than they sleep, and more time than they spend with their parents and teachers. And the nine hours does not include time spent using media at school or for their homework.
James Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media writes, “It should be a wake-up call to every parent, educator, policymaker, business person and tech industry person that the reshaping of our media tech landscape is first and foremost affecting young people’s lives and reshaping childhood and adolescence.”

The 170 psychologists, social workers and psychiatrists at New Oakland will attest that fostering empathy is critical in the development of healthy young people.  Kids’ ability to feel for others affects their health and happiness. Empathy activates conscience and moral reasoning, curbs bullying and aggression, enhances kindness and peer inclusiveness, reduces prejudice and racism, promotes heroism and moral courage and boosts relationship satisfaction.

According to Steyer, “Communicating via mobile devices gets in the way of empathy. Texting is so much less empathetic than having a conversation in person and looking somebody in the eye and having physical or at least a verbal presence with them.”

Add in the issues of digital addiction and the attention and distraction implications that come with mobile devices and “empathy is really, really under siege,” says Steyer. “That’s a huge issue in terms of society and human relationships and how young people are evolving in a social, emotional context. More research is needed.”

A CNN Special Report, “#Being 13: Inside the Secret World of Teens,” is a first-of-its-kind study on social media and teens. Fittingly it’s on CNN.go, a mobile app. But that doesn’t make its findings any less upsetting.

Here are a few comments from the CNN report:

  • “I would rather not eat for a week than get my phone taken away. It’s really bad,” said Gia, a13-year-old. “I literally feel like I’m going to die.”
  • “When I get my phone taken away, I feel kind of naked,” said Kyla, another 13-year-old.

It’s why a typical 13- year-old checks social media 100 times a day.

So as not to feel disconnected, or “naked,” the phones are on when they do their homework, a huge deterrent to concentration and learning.

“Teenagers think that multitasking during homework doesn’t affect their ability to learn and … we know it does,” says Steyer, citing studies such as one at Stanford, which found dramatic differences in cognitive control and the ability to process information between heavy media multi-taskers and light media multi-taskers.”

I know that our laws and values about personal responsibility would never allow it, but if it were up to me, I’d regulate teen smartphone use like we do tobacco, alcohol and soon, marijuana. Bring back the flip phone because until 18, a phone is for talking and emergencies. If you want to take pictures of yourself all day, which teens are also obsessed with doing, then carry a camera.

Unfortunately, it isn’t just kids. Almost every time a light turns from red to green, I honk at the unmoving car in front of me and yell, “Get off your damn phone!” (Or something worse than that.)

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to text Alison to tell her something important so that maybe she’ll have time to call me later.