Parental panic over smartphones

"Few of us are immune from the seduction of our phones. And yet when we see how hooked our kids are, we go ballistic." Checkup producer Anna-Liza Kozma explores the parental and moral panic over smartphones.
A new study finds a correlation between the rise of sleep deprivation and smart phone use. (iStockphoto)

In her essay, Cross Country Checkup producer Anna-Liza Kozma explores the parental and moral panic over smartphones.

This week I asked my 16-year-old if he turned off his smartphone at night.

"Of course, mom," he replied.

I was skeptical. "You know the blue light stops you from sleeping properly?"

"Yes, mom." He rolled his eyes and showed me the green pin prick of light next to the earphone jack.

"It only comes on when I get a notification," he said.

Aha! I knew it. "So when you wake up in the night and see that, you will have to check it, right?"

"I don't wake up in the night, Mom,"  he said.  

It took me a minute. I'd forgotten what it was like to be young and have a strong bladder. In my rush to judge my son as irresponsible, was I forgetting other things as well?

What's a concerned parent to do?

But what is concerned parent to do? There's a new study that ties screen time to poor sleeping habits: since 2009 the amount of sleep adolescents get has been decreasing, with 40 per cent of teens sleeping less than seven hours a night in 2015.

Psychologist Jean Twenge and her colleagues also learned that the more time young people reported spending online, the less sleep they got. And when you read that "The average Canadian teenager is on track to spend nearly a decade of their life staring at a smartphone," it's hard not to panic.

The phones migrated into the bedroom as homework devices, music sources and alarm clocks. And there they've stayed. It's pretty much the same in every house I know.- Anna-Liza Kozma

Let's be honest. Few of us are immune from the seduction of our phones. And yet when we see how hooked our kids are, we go ballistic.

Last week my husband, who can't resist checking his phone in the middle of the night on the way from the bathroom, woke me at 2 a.m. apoplectic about a new billing from Apple.

Our nine-year-old had racked up $178 buying gems in the game Hungry Shark Evolution and clicking too many times in Crossy Road the past few days. Never mind the teenager's sleep problems. He couldn't snooze again until he'd fired off an angry email to Apple and posted about it on Facebook.

And then there's my 14-year-old daughter, who claims she is honing her script-writing skills by watching Netflix at all hours on her laptop while Snapchatting with her friends. The horror of realizing that she'd managed to watch six seasons of Gilmore Girls without me is still fresh.

Rising anxiety

As a parent of three tech-savvy kids — what kids aren't these days? — there are few problems that make me more anxious than what their devices are doing to them, and to us as a family. We use bribes, threats and monitoring apps or devices, like the Circle with Disney, in an attempt to curtail the worst excesses. The nine-year-old is still more or less under control (Apple cancelled those crazy billings as mistakes). But the idea of a joint family overnight recharging station now seems as quaint as a VCR or watching Happy Days together.

It wasn't always like this. As an undergraduate in media studies, I was schooled in a healthy skepticism for TV consumption — and in my early days as a parent, we went without TV altogether. It was a dramatic stance, but I was propelled by books like Marie Winn's The Plug-In Drug which laid out how the idiot box was stealing childhoods. It wasn't the content, it was the medium — a variant on Marshall McLuhan's famous dictum.

Then one after the other, my older kids hit high school and gained iPhones. Any pretence of control went out the window. The phones migrated into the bedroom as homework devices, music sources and alarm clocks. And there they've stayed. It's pretty much the same in every house I know.

Is the iPhone indispensable or addictive? Ten years after its debut, we ask 'How has the iPhone changed us and how will it shape our future?' 9:31

Gateways to loneliness and anxiety

Psychologists tell us that the smartphone in the bedroom is the gateway to teen loneliness, depression and anxiety. And the effects are worse for girls than boys, because they tend to spend even more time on their smartphones than boys do. 

I know the studies. And I pace outside my kids' rooms and sometimes I knock on the door to check on them.

Invariably they are on their phones. "I'm looking up something for homework," they say. Sometimes, my son says he's texting his girlfriend. I peer over and it's always true. His phone shows a website on physics or math problems or guidelines for entering a contest on entrepreneurship. Sometimes it is a text to his girlfriend.

"It's just impossible to make blanket statements about what teens are doing on their phones or other devices," media studies professor Tamara Shepherd tells me. "Or the affects that it's having on them — or on us."

Technology is embedded in culture and there are multiple causes and effects. There's a danger with too much simplicity.- Tamara Shepherd, media studies professor

And yes, there's a bit of a moral panic going on, she says. We've all got to take a breath and remember that young people are not much different from adults when it comes to phone addiction.

A place to start is to pay attention to how we frame the conversation and what questions we are asking, suggests Shepherd, who teaches new media at the University of Calgary.

"Let's ask: How are phones designed? Apple is celebrated all the time for creating beautiful, aesthetically pleasing devices. We need to be asking: Why are they making it like that? They want our eyeballs. They are advertisers [and] marketers. We need to be aware of that."

And when it comes to girls and smartphones, Shepherd draws on her research on teen sexting and pro-anorexia websites. "So often something is seen as happening to all girls equally. A blanket statement is made, blaming technology for the effect, when perhaps we should look more closely at the motivation behind the problem. Technology is embedded in culture and there are multiple causes and effects. There's a danger with too much simplicity."

The importance of digital literacy

I wonder if teaching media and digital literacy in elementary and high school might help address the problem. There's been a lot of attention on internet bullying, but almost nothing on the downside of having your phone on your pillow. There doesn't seem to be much room in the curriculum for that, according to Shepherd.

It's not realistic or fair to expect teachers to be on top of everything. And [it's] not fair to expect that of parents either.- Tamara Shepherd

"From kindergarten to Grade 12 media studies has been downsized in favour of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). There's more demand for STEM in the job market. Our education system has been orientated to job-related skills instead of more general, living-in-the-world skills. There's no money in teaching digital literacy, but there is money in teaching engineering."

Shepherd says she sees this lack of media literacy in her undergraduates.

"They think the best job for them will be as social media managers for some company, but they don't realize that job is essentially an advertising role. They often have no sense of what a social media company really is."

'The pace of change is incredible'

The problem is the pace of change, which makes it difficult for teachers to keep up with the undulating digital landscape. "From the teacher's point of view … they are already dealing with under-resourced subjects in high school. And the media and digital world is constantly new every few years. The pace of change is incredible. With TV media literacy you were dealing with essentially the same technology for decades," says Shepherd.

"It's not realistic or fair to expect teachers to be on top of everything. And [it's] not fair to expect that of parents either."

It's a good point. It was easy enough to teach media literacy for TV when the technology essentially stayed the same for half a century. The "Plug-In Drug" of a decade ago seems quaint and cosy now — as does the idea of sitting together in the same room watching a single screen.

As a parent who fights every night to get the kids to leave their rooms, their phones and devices and come to the dinner table … that sounds like such a great idea.

So maybe the solution to the smart phone dilemma is more TV?

Tech journalist, Clive Thompson thinks so. He reminded me how much better TV is now than in our childhoods.

"TV in the 7'0s and '80s was a massive, horrifying waste of everyone's goddamn time," Thompson, author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, told me an email. "The shows were terrible. I mean, dreadful. None of the artistry — the multi-season arcs, the ambitious storytelling, the complex plots — of today's TV. It was like sitting and watching the most idiotic, non-clever animated gifs you can imagine."

Today, teens can interact with TV in a way unimaginable for their parents — and use their smart phones to do it.

"Today, kids do a lot of stuff with TV," writes Thompson. "They talk about it online, do supercuts, pull out microexpressions to use as animated gifs. None of that existed widely back then. You just sat and watched."

When you put it like that, technology doesn't seem quite so scary after all.

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