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Get Smart

It would mean not eradicating the smartphone, but marginalizing it

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge, two psychologists whose work on the interface between mental health and technology is well known, address the huge spike in depression among American teenagers. In 2012, rates of depression, loneliness, self-harm, and suicide in this age group began to rise sharply, and by 2019, rates of depression had nearly doubled. Both came to “suspect the same culprits: smartphones in general and social media in particular.”

Jean discovered that 2012 was the first year that a majority of Americans owned a smartphone; by 2015, two-thirds of teens did too. This was also the period when social media use moved from optional to ubiquitous among adolescents….

By 2012, as the world now knows, the major platforms had created an outrage machine that made life online far uglier, faster, more polarized and more likely to incite performative shaming. In addition, as Instagram grew in popularity over the next decade, it had particularly strong effects on girls and young women, inviting them to “compare and despair” as they scrolled through posts from friends and strangers showing… lives that had been edited and re-edited until many were closer to perfection than to reality.

In a paper they recently published related to teenage loneliness, Haidt and Twenge report the findings of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which surveys 15-year-olds in dozens of countries every three years. It asks six questions about loneliness at school, and although loneliness is certainly not the same as depression, “the two are correlated — lonely teens are often depressed teens, and vice versa. And loneliness is painful even without depression.”

In 36 out of 37 countries, loneliness at school has increased since 2012. They found the same pattern in all regions, regardless of geography or culture: “Teenage loneliness was relatively stable between 2000 and 2012…. But in the six years after 2012, rates increased dramatically. They roughly doubled in Europe, Latin America, and the English-speaking countries…. This synchronized global increase in teenage loneliness suggests a global cause, and the timing is right for smartphones and social media to be major contributors.”

Correlation is not causation, but the two researchers looked at data on various factors that might be related to teenage loneliness, such as declining family size and negative economic developments, and increased smartphone access and Internet use. “The results were clear: Only smartphone access and Internet use increased in lock step with teenage loneliness. The other factors were unrelated or inversely correlated. If anyone has another explanation for the global increase in loneliness at school, we’d love to hear it.”

Haidt and Twenge note that it’s not enough to study the effects on the teenagers who use smartphones and social media, because they don’t just affect individuals, they affect groups. They write:

The smartphone brought about a planetary rewiring of human interaction. As smartphones became common, they transformed peer relationships, family relationships, and the texture of daily life for everyone — even those who don’t own a phone or don’t have an Instagram account. It’s harder to strike up a casual conversation in the cafeteria or after class when everyone is staring down at a phone. It’s harder to have a deep conversation when each party is interrupted randomly by buzzing, vibrating “notifications.” As Sherry Turkle wrote in her book Reclaiming Conversation, life with smartphones means “we are forever elsewhere.”

Then comes the inevitable part of the great majority of opinion pieces I’ve read on this topic: The nod to reality. The authors write: “So what can we do? We can’t turn back time to the pre-smartphone era, nor would we want to, given the many benefits of the technology. But we can take some reasonable steps to help teens get more of what they need.”

The steps they have in mind are two: locking up kids’ smartphones during school hours and making social media platforms legally responsible for enforcing their stated minimum age of 13 by implementing age and identity verification for all new accounts.

So, to sum up, these esteemed experts believe they know why there’s been a sharp increase in the number of teenagers who are depressed and killing themselves in recent years — and they’re probably right — yet the only ideas they can offer in response are to put smartphones off-limits for several hours a day and push access to social media to age 13. Why? Because, like most of us, they have no desire to “turn back time to the pre-smartphone era,” due to the many benefits of the technology.

This is what passes for sophisticated discussion of one of the greatest moral dilemmas and societal challenges of our time, by two of the individuals most qualified to discuss these issues. The reality of children ruining their live — or ending them — at unheard-of rates is stacked up against the amorphous “many benefits of the technology.” And, in one formulaic sentence, the latter wins.

What are these benefits? How many are they? Do the blessings these unspecified, unquantified benefits bestow indeed outweigh not just what’s befalling teens, but the very long list of societal curses — the broken marriages and families and lives and careers, the nightmares of lies and conspiracy theories and verbal and physical violence and addictions and political acrimony and destruction of privacy — that these technologies have unleashed? Is it just possible that there are many other possible responses between the poles of, on the one hand, the tepid idea to deny teens their smartphones for a few hours daily and, on the other, a return to the Dark Ages of “the pre-smartphone era”?

Isn’t it time to have an in-depth, thoroughgoing discussion that takes the time and thought to: a) flesh out each of the costs and benefits of smartphones — filtered ones, of course — based on the input of those who can speak knowledgeably about them, such as rabbanim, parents, teachers, and psychologists; b) assign a value to each of these costs on a scale of moral and spiritual harm, and a value to each of these benefits on a spectrum running from need to convenience to whim; and c) propose a range of solutions based on a weighing of these values against each other?

Even in the frum sector, what we’re seeing is a variation of Haidt and Twenge: Raising the specter of, and then dismissing out of hand, a return to the pre-smartphone era as a way of quickly pivoting to a discussion of “reasonable” and “responsible” use of smartphones. But invoking the bogeyman of a desire to discard all smartphones is simplistic and unfair.

What if, for example, a Torah-based weighing of relative costs and benefits were to conclude that having access to things like Waze is indeed essential and thus justifiable, but that the use of smartphones for the convenience of shopping sites and the like is not, because the potential costs to our Jewish and human lives are just too high? The solution might then be to keep a smartphone in a case in the car, or perhaps at home for very limited use under specific circumstances.

It would mean not eradicating the smartphone, but marginalizing it, removing it from the center of our lives to the periphery. It would mean treating it as what it actually is: a potentially very dangerous, but at times unavoidable, necessity, and not as a font of excitement and enlightenment and a blessed gateway to the wonderful wide world of consumption and convenience. That would not be a return to the pre-smartphone era, but neither would it be a capitulation to the ever-increasing omnipresence of smartphones under the helpless claim of needing to “acknowledge reality.”

Do we really want to acknowledge reality? Here’s one: I know of a great number of gedolei Torah from every stream who believe that a Jew should not have a filtered smartphone for anything other than business needs, and that no young person should have access to one, period. I have seen many gedolei Torah describe the effort to overcome the smartphone’s assault on our lives as the generational challenge, and perhaps the greatest our nation has ever faced.

I have yet to hear of any great Torah leader who disagrees. Have you?


Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 874. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com

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