Not as smart as we think

June 1, 2023 | Life Lines

Smartphone phobia

Born in 1962, I am one of those tail-end Baby Boomers who doesn’t really fit the mold; my husband is at the leading edge of Gen X. All three of our children fall at various points in the Gen Z grouping, from the earliest year in that category to midway through the span. When looking at us as a collective, it’s easy to see the dramatic differences in the ways we were brought up, the ways we communicate and socialize, and the ways we use technology.

Even among our children, there is a significant difference between the son born in 1997, the daughter born in 2000, and the daughter born in 2005. Although they are part of the same generation, they are miles apart when it comes to how they use social media and their phones. But what I find consistent among all of us when it comes to smartphones and social media — despite the bad rap they continually get — are the ways this technology contributes to our connection, our social interactions, and our support networks.

My 17-year-old is far more social and far better adjusted than I ever was in the alleged “good old days,” when bullying happened on school buses and in school bathrooms where no one was around to catch it on video and bring the perpetrators to justice. Sure, there are technology abuses, but there are also tremendous benefits. I am grateful, for example, to technology for the way it allows my husband and me to keep in contact with each other and our children throughout each day. Our family text thread is not just filled with notes about upcoming vacations or breaking news stories, but with memories and photos and things that make us smile.

All of my children regularly receive text greetings from my godmother on important feast days. It’s not unusual for my kids to tell me that Aunt Margaret texted them “Happy Feast of Our Lady of Fatima.” Or for my daughter, Chiara, when we say grace before meals to remind us to pray for someone my aunt texted her about. If we’ve decided to blame smartphones and social media for our world’s woes and our children’s anxiety, we are taking the easy way out.

Just last week the U.S. Surgeon General issued a report saying, “While social media may offer some benefits, there are ample indicators that social media can also pose a risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.” A lot of things pose potential risks to our kids. For example, guns pose the greatest risk to a child’s mental and physical health, and yet we as a nation seem unwilling and unable to address that horror. So, instead, we cling to social media as the big bad wolf in this story. We all know (or should know) that parents need to monitor and limit their children’s access to social media, not just in terms of time spent but content seen, just as I used to limit my children’s access to television and video games, back when those were the things we were told to fear.

Yes, our children have record-breaking levels of depression and anxiety. Perhaps because they go to school and wonder if they will make it out alive. Or they go to work on a subway only blocks from where someone was pushed in front of a train. Or they fear the savings account they are building up to buy real health insurance and maybe, gasp, a house might vanish in a world where even banks don’t feel safe anymore.

Unfortunately, technology is an easy target for people who are afraid of change. In the Bethlehem Central School District, the plan is to spend $27,000 to equip every student with a Yondr pouch to lock down phones all day. The intentions may be good, but the reality is short-sighted and possibly dangerous. Without smartphones, what happens in the event of a school shooting when a child can’t call 911 or text a parent, or when a teacher has a heart attack at the front of the room and no one can access their phone, or when a student simply has some sort of embarrassing situation that requires a change of clothes or an early pick-up but can no longer reach out to a parent during lunch to do so without advertising it to the teacher and, most likely, the whole class.

Rather than locking down phones and longing for the ways of the past, we should be helping our young people better navigate this wireless landscape. But here’s the reality: We can’t help them because we haven’t learned to navigate it ourselves. Maybe if the adults in the room would take an honest look at the ways they use these high-tech tools, they’d realize the kids are going to be just fine, if only we’d look up from our phones long enough to fix the real problems in our world.

This column first appeared in the June 1, 2023, issue of The Evangelist.

Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

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