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Moving Forward, Looking Back / Kids and smartphones: A modest proposal

Published 6:10 am, Thursday, April 10, 2014
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There's no question that people the world over have been captivated by the technology packed into the magical devices we call smartphones. The things we can do with them seem limited only by the imagination. We and they have become inseparable, kept as close at hand as my granddaughter keeps her favorite stuffed bunny.

People, is it possible that we've gone a little too far down the road with our electronic sidekicks?

If you are sensing that I'm going to be critical of our hand-held cyber-BFF's, you would be right, so if you're not in the mood for this kind of talk, turn the page now, or check your Facebook news feed.

Let's start with a lesser smartphone affliction. I believe we are already living to regret that smartphone cameras have spawned countless billions of low-quality, hopelessly banal images that swarm over Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Haven't we, for example, seen enough dogs with sunglasses, or babies with ice cream all over their faces?

I have also witnessed more troubling outcomes, like a young man in a museum stopping in front of a famous painting long enough to aim and fire his smartphone camera at it, only to move on without actually looking at the painting. Or whale-watchers squandering precious minutes with a dozen whales swimming nearby by trying to take pictures of them (the whales, beautiful to see with the naked eye, look like blurry little oil slicks in a smartphone photo). Or, even sadder, an audience of parents making shaky, murky, tinny videos of school performances instead of actually watching their children perform.

Unfortunately, the dark side of smartphones goes well beyond being overrun by crummy photographs and videos that separate us from direct experience of the world. I am suggesting as well that smartphones not only crowd out high-quality human interactions, but are the tip of a corporate spear aimed directly at our children, the profit centers of the future. We buy them the phones, and then the upgrades. We buy them cellular service. We let social media profile them, and then target them with ads.

If I'm sounding too over the top, this is another good place to stop reading and see if you can get past Level 181 of Candy Crush.

South Korea, a country with blazing Internet speeds and universal smartphone ownership, is very worried about its children. All Korean children age 13 to 17 have smartphones, and 20 are addicted to them.

Addicted? South Korean social scientists mean the kids who are one-on-one with their smartphones at least seven hours a day, and when separated from them, exhibit symptoms of anxiety, depression, and insomnia. Many kids will confess to hating their smartphones, but are powerless before them. The South Koreans have also noted a significant increase in cyber-bullying.

Can't happen here? In the U.S., about 70 percent of kids age 13 to 17 own a smartphone, and the penetration rate is rapidly increasing. Well-conducted surveys reveal that the average American kid sends 3,300 text messages per month, with about one-third sending at least 100 per day.

There are no hard data for Fairfield, but the collective estimate of parents and teachers I've spoken to is that about 75 percent of middle-school kids have smartphones. In high school, ownership is just about 100 percent. There is no restriction on having them in school. Technically, they are not to be used during classes (lol), and some teachers actually collect them before class begins. I have been in high school hallways between classes; the smartphones are out in force, heads down, thumbs flashing over those little keyboards.

Back home, there are more texts and Facebook posts; if a kid doesn't answer a text or "like" a friend's post, there are social consequences, just as there are if a kid's text or post goes unanswered. Smartphones are conversation killers at a family meal, and distractions from homework. It's well documented that kids continue to text after "lights out," even in the middle of the night.

Smartphones can be weaponized. Being publicly ostracized or bullied via social media is traumatic, and occasionally tragic.

Not that we grownups are smartphone-role models. We have loud phone conversations in public places. We check emails during movies, or while sitting across from a dinner partner. Even worse, we prop up smartphones in front of small children in a restaurant to sedate them.

In defense of parents, they are under relentless pressure to get smartphones for their kids, who are in turn under relentless pressure from peers to have one. One holdout middle-school parent pays the price of virtue by getting texts from her son's friends to pass along to him.

Don't get me wrong; I have a smartphone, and it does a lot of cool things. But I don't think we should surrender our children's human development to an electronic device.

My modest proposal (actually, three, and actually, pretty modest):

1. No smartphones in school. They add nothing to the school day except distraction and isolation. To parents wanting to stay in touch with their kids during school, I say, "seriously?" Kids have been going to school for centuries without a direct line to mom.

2. Strictly enforced time limits on smartphone use. Never at meals or after lights out.

3. Any handheld device propped up for a child in a public place to be smashed with a hammer.

You can do this, parents! What do our educators and pediatricians think?

Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears periodically. He can be reached at: rblumen2@gmail.com.