We used to love smartphones. We used to wait in line for them and dress them up in pretty cases and show them off to our friends. Many of us still do, but things seem . . . different. People are using words like invasive, co-dependent, junkies, addiction—serious language meant to suggest our total submission. In the last six months, a backlash against smartphones has arisen from all corners of the country—from luminaries and musicians and even former tech executives. Now, for the first time, several of them have spoken to Popular Mechanics about why, exactly, they chose this moment to use their considerable power to try to stop devices from turning our society into a Mad Max hellscape.
Last year was a pivotal year in our relationship with technology,” says author Arianna Huffington, who in January released an app called Thrive, in partnership with Samsung, that temporarily halts phone notifications. “For many, the unfolding story of how technology was used to undermine our elections served as a wake-up call. But there’s a wider story that had been bubbling up in the zeitgeist for a few years, as technology accelerated the pace of our lives and has made it seem like we were living in service of our devices rather than leveraging tools to make our lives better.”
“THE UNFOLDING STORY OF HOW TECHNOLOGY WAS USED TO UNDERMINE OUR ELECTIONS SERVED AS A WAKE-UP CALL”
In January, Jana Partners, a private equity firm and one of Apple’s largest shareholders, co-wrote a letter to Apple demanding that the company help parents mitigate the effects of smartphone use on children. Charles Penner, a partner at Jana Partners, told us, “Companies can do things that both increase their own value and enhance value to society. An obvious example is the environment—you now have companies responding to the fact that climate change is no longer a theoretical risk. We thought the same thing was likely to happen with technology. Popular perceptions of technology are changing for the worse. Risks that people used to think are theoretical are starting to show up in real ways.”
And then there’s the rock-and-roll rationale: “We think you’ll enjoy looking up from your gadgets for a little while and experience music and our shared love of it IN PERSON,” Jack White said in his announcement (also in January) that fans would be expected to lock away their phones in Yondr cases at his future concerts.
If smartphone backlash were the juicing movement, we’d have reached peak coconut-kale acai bowl with goji berries. More than 600 schools across the country are using those Yondr cases, neoprene pouches that temporarily lock phones away using a mechanism somewhat like those old shoplifting-deterrent tags. Last year, Nokia rereleased the dumbphone it first put out in the year 2000. It sold out in a week. And in December 2017, Facebook (Facebook!) pledged $1 million toward studying the relationship between media technologies and well-being.
Why the (relatively) sudden demonization of everybody’s favorite appendage? In looking for an answer, my first stop, as usual, was science—I called a bunch of researchers and asked if there was any hard evidence that might have suddenly swayed public opinion.
“I can’t think of a single study that compellingly demonstrates that this has somehow changed our brain,” says Jason Chein, an associate professor of psychology at Temple University who recently wrote a paper that reviewed 100 scientific studies on the topic.
Lindsay Squeglia, a psychiatry professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, runs the Mobile Technology Workgroup for the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, which promises to be the largest longitudinal study of brain development and child health ever undertaken in the United States. Supported by $300 million from the National Institutes of Health, researchers have been enrolling 10,000 nine- to ten-year-olds since late 2016 and will follow them for a decade to determine how social media and smartphone use, along with a host of other factors, affects academic achievement, emotional functioning, and brain development.
WE MAY FIND OUT THAT SMARTPHONES ARE THE NEW COMIC BOOKS, TERRIFYING OLDER GENERATIONS.
“It’s flashy to say that this is ruining our kids’ trajectories, and it always gets you on the front page of the paper, or on the Today show,” Squeglia says. “I take a much more unbiased approach. It always ends up somewhere in the middle, right?”
Indeed. Scientists are studying mobile addiction feverishly, but there is not one sweeping conclusion I could point to as the cause of the backlash. It’s all interesting, though: One study published last year in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research found that the farther away a student’s smartphone was during tests of working memory and fluid intelligence, the better he or she performed—even though the phones were on silent and the students reported not thinking about them at all. Others have found that conversations held in the absence of smartphones are overall better (Misra et al., 2014), and that taking a photo of a piece of art reduces the likelihood that you’ll remember it later (Henkel, 2013). And yet: In 2016, Dutch researchers Helen Vossen and Patti Valkenburg found correlations between heavier social media use and increased empathy in preteens. And a 2012 paper by Chinese researchers Kelvin Lui and Alan Wong found that people who multitask with lots of different media might make faster, smarter subconscious decisions about their environment.
So, early conclusion: Science is not behind the backlash. (Interestingly, the Jana Partners letter to Apple did cite two scientific experts, but one is a very loud researcher out of San Diego State University who has been selling books about the impending doom of the next generation since at least 2006—before the iPhone was released.) It’s important to remember, though, that science sometimes takes a long time to figure out exactly how humans are screwing ourselves up. Our collective feeling of unease about smartphones probably stems from something real.
“IT’S LIKE PULLING THE BREAKER ON THE INTERNET.”
Eventually, the ABCD study that Squeglia is working on could give us some evidence. The kids come in for annual brain scans, interviews, and tests of memory and attention. “We collect DNA to look at genetic influences, and saliva samples for hormone analyses,” Squeglia says. They’re very thorough: The researchers in Squeglia’s group are even developing an app using Apple ResearchKit and Android Stack that will collect information about how often the kids use their smartphones, so they won’t have to trust unreliable self-reports.
In the end, we may find out that smartphones are the new comic books, terrifying older generations with their newfangled unseriousness. Or we may learn that smartphones are the sugar of social interactions, undermining our mental health in unprecedented ways. Probably both. For now, technology companies, on trial in the court of popular opinion, are offering preemptive solutions. “Most of the stakeholders are responding,” says Huffington.
According to Mark Zuckerberg’s earnings call for the last quarter of 2017, Facebook is showing “fewer viral videos to make sure people’s time is well spent, reducing time spent on Facebook by roughly 50 million hours every day.” Apple has promised to release new, more “robust” parental controls, a response, in part, to the open letter. (In a call, an Apple representative also pointed out that parents can permanently turn on the Do Not Disturb While Driving function on current iPhones, as well as monitor the usage of different apps by looking at the relative percentage of battery use under Settings).
Meanwhile, 40 percent of Norwegian students are using an app called Hold, which offers rewards for not checking your phone. The company is working with Coca-Cola and Microsoft, and is expanding internationally. Finally, Eero, a company that makes mesh Wi-Fi routers, is beefing up an already available function called “family profiles” that allows parents to set recurring internet schedules differently for each kid. “It’s like pulling the breaker on the internet,” says Eero’s CEO and co-founder Nick Weaver.
American popular culture has an incredible way of backlashing itself into a (mostly) stable equilibrium—one in which companies sell more stuff, and society doesn’t fall apart. For now, it’s encouraging to know that the public can still gall manufacturers into serving our best interests, even if we’re not quite sure what those are, because, by the time we reach a future that includes automated cars and augmented reality, we may look back fondly on the simpler years of the late 2010s, when all we had to contend with were hand computers.