By Leonid Bershidsky
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
Actually, I don’t: The problem is the software, not the phones themselves.
At best, banning smartphones would require kids to learn antiquated skills, something they arguably do too much of in school already. The modern phone is a sound recorder, a camera, an atlas, a notebook and the only device on which one can listen to pretty much any music on demand. Depriving kids of such a useful tool would be pointlessly cruel, just as taking away adults’ smartphones at work would be.
So what’s the biggest time hog on the smart phone? According to Comscore’s 2017 Mobile App Report, adults spend more than half their total screen time in the five most-used apps, and tend to select Facebook as their “most essential.” That makes it likely the most addictive substance in the app world.
Facebook has been pushing back against the idea that spending time on social media is inevitably bad for you. In a recent post, Director of Research David Ginsberg and research scientist Moira Burke posited that “engaging” — leaving comments, sharing content and exchanging messages, as opposed to idly scrolling through a feed — can make people feel better. Yet aside from suggesting a self-serving cure (do more stuff on Facebook!), their argument ignores the nature of addiction. Addicts often feel great when they have an ample supply of the desired substance. Consider the 10 million interactions attracted by one of this year’s most viral Facebook posts, a video titled “This Guy Just Sang Whitney Houston Live You’ve Never Heard.” All that engagement might have given people a dopamine boost, but the time would almost certainly have been better spent doing almost anything else, except perhaps heroin.
What really matters isn’t whether Facebook makes people feel good, but whether they’re wasting time on shallow relationships and unproductive pursuits. The social network’s scientists profess to know little about this: “We know that people are concerned about how technology affects our attention spans and relationships, as well as how it affects children in the long run,” Ginsberg and Burke wrote. “We agree these are critically important questions, and we all have a lot more to learn.” Which means we’re left to make judgments based on personal experience rather than big data.
When I was an active Facebook user, I would get birthday greetings from about 600 people. I wasted hours pasting in “thank you” as I struggled to remember who some of them were. This year, I stopped posting, leaving comments or even clicking “like.” I closed my timeline, so people could send greetings only by commenting on an old post or sending me a message. Fewer than 100 people did — still about 90 more than actually cared about my birthday. My life was unchanged. The dozen people who mattered would call or write even if Mark Zuckerberg had never started Facebook.
A few months ago, I largely stopped arguing with people on Twitter (though there have been a couple of relapses, which I deeply regret). Instead, I suggested that people drop me an email so we could really hash things out. Hardly anyone did. People didn’t really want to interact, to have a substantive discussion. Most just wanted to feel good about themselves at my expense. Twitter makes that easy; true human interaction is harder.
These examples explain why I’m done with the social networks, except for some light work-related use. When I scroll through my feeds for a strictly limited time, I think of myself as a plainclothes cop cautiously sipping a beer in a joint full of drunks. Images like that are helpful in kicking my addiction.
What, then, should France do? They’re considering requiring parental approval for kids under the age of 16 to open a social-network or messenger account, but that won’t work too well: Teens would hate it and the networks would be complicit. Regulators probably can’t address addictive software as they have, say, tobacco. Users will have to kick their own habits and prevent their kids from developing similar ones.
Kids under the age of 8 spend almost half their screen time — more than an hour a day — on mobile devices, according to the nonprofit group Common Sense Media. The poorer their family, the more time they waste playing games and watching YouTube videos on a tablet or hand-me-down phone. It’s easy to imagine how this happens: Struggling parents have less time to devote to their kids, and they’ll take any opportunity to keep them quiet. Few consider that they’re administering a “gateway drug” that’ll likely set off a social media addiction.
Adults can reclaim their lives by getting off social networks, turning off all notifications and perhaps installing an app that limits screen time — but not by throwing away the phone, which can still be useful in myriad ways. The same applies to kids. By all means, give them a phone — they’ll end up owning one sooner or later, anyway. But determine which apps can be on it and lock access to the rest. Even trying to hack your defenses will be a more productive pastime than watching dumb videos and sending emoji back and forth.
Featured image credits: Unsplash
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