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5 rebuttals to *that* smartphone article in The Atlantic

PictureThis guy used to freak me waaaay out.

Confirmation bias sells better than sex when it comes to talking about young people and their smartphones.

{EDIT: Feb 1, 2018 – so now there are 9}

Oh, you’ve noticed humans using phones en masse? Well done, you officially have eyes.  But leaping to conclusions about what that means for humanity, please stop believing the sensationalized headlines and recognize the information engine youre clicking into!
 
If you know a teenager, you know they love their phones.  But beyond that, I bet you have very little idea what they’re doing on their phones and how they feel about it. I bet mostly you’re guessing with a negative bias how ‘screenagers’ use their phones.  I bet you’d actually be really surprised about how a big proportion of young people are engaged in healthy, supportive relationships and activities online.
 
But if freaking out about these things is your hobby there is plenty of fodder for you around – every second person who has a Facebook account (yeah so about 500 million of you) is suddenly an expert in the impacts of technology and the doom saying that comes with something as new an unknown as the digital revolution.
 
While Jean Twenge is not just another professor of something vaguely related to technology, she does have a book to sell and there’s no better way to do that than splashy sensationalized headlines that play into every parent’s fear – the loss (literal or metaphorical) of the child.
 
The Atlantic article went wild, confirming for many, in emotional long form the way the jaws of technology are swallowing children – like that creepy child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Meanwhile handfuls of researchers in the array of related fields reacted with disappointment that another headline hijacked the conversation around teens and screens into hysteria.
 
Yes, there are (complex, nuanced, not easily explained) issues relating to the impacts of technology on brains (of all ages, not just the developing ones).  I’m not pretending otherwise, but the extent of those impacts and most importantly the way that we deal with these challenges is not served by moral panic and doses of fear smacked with smartphone bans and spying parents. We need to think more deeply, and respond more practically and astutely, to apply some of the very same principles we want young people to employ – to stop and think critically before they share and retweet.
 
For every journal article that shows there are negative impacts, I’ll show you one that demonstrates social connection using digital media has positive impacts.  The problem is we’re never comparing apples with identical apples. Systematic reviews of the literature generally show huge variance in the research – the age and number of participants, the digital inputs (how do you control for what people consume online, how long, low intensely etc?) and importantly how the questions asked are framed (have a look at many of the survey questions and you’ll find they ask questions framed negatively – so responses can mirror this).  
 
So in lieu of me having a great deal of time to write the rebuttal I would like to (who knew having a 5 month old was so time consuming), here are 5 esteemed people talking back to ‘that’ smartphone article:

1. Katie Davis, Emily Weinstein & Howard Gardner (yes, THAT Gardner)  – In Defense of Complexity, Beware of SImplistic Narratives About Teens and Technology

2. Alexandra Samuel – Yes Smartphones are Destroying a Generation But Not of Kids

3. Dr Catharine Lumby – Enough with the moral panic over smartphones. The kids are alright.

4. Lisa Guernsey – Smartphones Haven’t Destroyed a Generation
 
5. Vicky Rideout – Some thoughts on the Atlantic….

POST UPDATE – Sept 3 // Listen to Amy Orben debate the assertion that Smartphones are harming teenagers with Jean Twenge herself in this BBC Newshour Extra 50 minute interview

POST UPDATE – Sept 20 // Here’s another couple of pieces which have come out to dispute the Twenge take on teens and screens.

6. Malcolm Harris – Are Smartphones Destroying a Generation, or Are Consultants? 

7. Elizabeth Nolan Brown – Ignore the Bullshit: iPhones are not destroying teenagers

POST UPDATE – Feb 1, 2018 // another few reviews and rebuttals cmae out over the break…

8. The revered Sonia Livingstone from the London School of Economics reviews the book here in the Journal of Family and Media

9. NPR’s Book Review: Move over Millennials, Here Comes iGen,  which aptly shows how Twenge retrofits the evidence to the conclusions she wants to show you.


About Jocelyn Brewer

Jocelyn is a Sydney-based psychologist and the creator of Digital Nutrition. She is an accredited teacher and has been studying cyberpsychology for a decade.

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