Digital Devices and Learning to Grow Up

Last week the NY Times ran the sort of op-ed on digital culture that the cultured despisers love to ridicule. In it, Jane Brody made a host of claims about the detrimental consequences of digital media consumption on children, especially the very young. She had the temerity, for example, to call texting the “next national epidemic.” Consider as well the following paragraphs:

“Two of my grandsons, ages 10 and 13, seem destined to suffer some of the negative effects of video-game overuse. The 10-year-old gets up half an hour earlier on school days to play computer games, and he and his brother stay plugged into their hand-held devices on the ride to and from school. ‘There’s no conversation anymore,’ said their grandfather, who often picks them up. When the family dines out, the boys use their devices before the meal arrives and as soon as they finish eating.

‘If kids are allowed to play ‘Candy Crush’ on the way to school, the car ride will be quiet, but that’s not what kids need,’ Dr. Steiner-Adair said in an interview. ‘They need time to daydream, deal with anxieties, process their thoughts and share them with parents, who can provide reassurance.’

Technology is a poor substitute for personal interaction.”

Poor lady, I thought, and a grandmother no less. She was in for the kind of thrashing from the digital sophisticates that is usually reserved for Sherry Turkle.

In truth, I didn’t catch too many reactions to the piece, but one did stand out. At The Awl, John Hermann summed up the critical responses with admirable brevity:

“But the argument presented in the first installment is also proudly unsophisticated, and doesn’t attempt to preempt obvious criticism. Lines like ‘technology is a poor substitute for personal interaction,’ and non-sequitur quotes from a grab-bag of experts, tee up the most common and effective response to fears of Screen Addiction: that what’s happening on all these screens is not, as the writer suggests, an endless braindead Candy Crush session, but a rich social experience of its own. That screen is full of friends, and its distraction is no less valuable or valid than the distraction of a room full of buddies or a playground full of fellow students. Screen Addiction is, in this view, nonsensical: you can no more be addicted to a screen than to windows, sounds, or the written word.”

But Hermann does not quite leave it at that: “This is an argument worth making, probably. But tell it to an anxious parent or an alienated grandparent and you will sense that it is inadequate.” The argument may be correct, but, Hermann explains, “Screen Addiction is a generational complaint, and generational complaints, taken individually, are rarely what they claim to be. They are fresh expressions of horrible and timeless anxieties.”

Hermann goes on to make the following poignant observations:

“The grandparent who is persuaded that screens are not destroying human interaction, but are instead new tools for enabling fresh and flawed and modes of human interaction, is left facing a grimmer reality. Your grandchildren don’t look up from their phones because the experiences and friendships they enjoy there seem more interesting than what’s in front of them (you). Those experiences, from the outside, seem insultingly lame: text notifications, Emoji, selfies of other bratty little kids you’ve never met. But they’re urgent and real. What’s different is that they’re also right here, always, even when you thought you had an attentional claim. The moments of social captivity that gave parents power, or that gave grandparents precious access, are now compromised. The TV doesn’t turn off. The friends never go home. The grandkids can do the things they really want to be doing whenever they want, even while they’re sitting five feet away from grandma, alone, in a moving soundproof pod.

To see a more celebratory presentation of these dynamics, recall this Facebook ad from 2013:

Hermann, of course, is less sanguine.

Screen Addiction is a new way for kids to be blithe and oblivious; in this sense, it is empowering to the children, who have been terrible all along. The new grandparent’s dilemma, then, is both real and horribly modern. How, without coming out and saying it, do you tell that kid that you have things you want to say to them, or to give them, and that you’re going to die someday, and that they’re going to wish they’d gotten to know you better? Is there some kind of curiosity gap trick for adults who have become suddenly conscious of their mortality?”

“A new technology can be enriching and exciting for one group of people and create alienation for another;” Hermann concludes, “you don’t have to think the world is doomed to recognize that the present can be a little cruel.”

Well put.

I’m tempted to leave it at that, but I’m left wondering about the whole “generational complaint” business.

To say that something is a generational complaint suggests that we are dealing with old men yelling, “Get off my lawn!” It conjures up the image of hapless adults hopelessly out of sync with the brilliant exuberance of the young. It is, in other words, to dismiss whatever claim is being made. Granted, Hermann has given us a more sensitive and nuanced discussion of the matter, but even in his account too much ground is ceded to this kind of framing.

If we are dealing with a generational complaint, what exactly do we mean by that? Ostensibly that the old are lodging a predictable kind of complaint against the young, a complaint that amounts to little more than an unwillingness to comprehend the new or a desperate clinging to the familiar. Looked at this way, the framing implies that the old, by virtue of their age, are the ones out of step with reality.

But what if the generational complaint is framed rather as a function of coming into responsible adulthood. Hermann approaches this perspective when he writes, “Screen Addiction is a new way for kids to be blithe and oblivious; in this sense, it is empowering to the children, who have been terrible all along.” So when a person complains that they are being ignored by someone enthralled by their device, are they showing their age or merely demanding a basic degree of decency?

Yes, children are wont to be blithe and oblivious, often cruelly indifferent to the needs of others. Traditionally, we have sought to remedy that obliviousness and self-centeredness. Indeed, coming into adulthood more or less entails gaining some measure of control over our naturally self-centered impulses for our own good and for the sake of others. In this light, asking a child–whether age seven or thirty-seven–to lay their device aside long enough to acknowledge the presence of another human being is simply to ask them to grow up.

Others have taken a different tack in response to Brody and Hermann. Jason Kottke arrives at this conclusion:

“People on smartphones are not anti-social. They’re super-social. Phones allow people to be with the people they love the most all the time, which is the way humans probably used to be, until technology allowed for greater freedom of movement around the globe. People spending time on their phones in the presence of others aren’t necessarily rude because rudeness is a social contract about appropriate behavior and, as Hermann points out, social norms can vary widely between age groups. Playing Minecraft all day isn’t necessarily a waste of time. The real world and the virtual world each have their own strengths and weaknesses, so it’s wise to spend time in both.”

Of course. But how do we allocate the time we spend in each–that’s the question. Also, I’m not quite sure what to make of his claim about rudeness and the social contract except that it seems to suggest that it’s not rudeness if you decide you don’t like the terms of the social contract that renders it so. Sorry Grandma, I don’t recognize the social contract by which I’m supposed to acknowledge your presence and render to you a modicum of my attention and affection.

Yes, digital devices have given us the power to decide who is worthy of our attention minute by minute. Advocates of this constant connectivity–many of them, like Facebook, acting out of obvious self-interest–want us to believe this is an unmitigated good and that we should exercise this power with impunity. But–how to say this without sounding alarmist–encouraging people to habitually render other human beings unworthy of their attention seems like a poor way to build a just and equitable society.