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Breda O’Brien: Smartphone addiction is a great danger we must resist

Technology giants wean us on their apps and glowing screens. It is time to take action

The recent Ana Kriegel assault and murder case has frightened the life out of parents. The immediate response was that the government should do something to regulate what young people can access on the internet. This shows how helpless parents feel as individuals to combat the negative aspects of technology.

But they are also very reluctant to have their children seem out of step. They fear their children being isolated and having a miserable childhood and adolescence if they are denied a smartphone, but are equally stressed when screens bring bullying or other unpleasant realities into their child’s bedroom.

It makes you nostalgic for the days when people were worrying about the influence of television and its potential to undermine parental values. The internet is a whole different order of worry.

Similarly, pornography in the 1980s was something found primarily in magazines and took a certain amount of effort to access. Nowadays, when parents wonder when to get their child a smartphone, it is almost a decision about whether they want their child to access porn because the smartphone is highly likely to be used for that purpose either deliberately or accidentally.


When parents wonder when to get their child a smartphone, it is almost a decision about whether they want their child to access porn

Most parents do not want to be permissive, much less neglectful, but the way we have organised our society makes it difficult to enforce boundaries.

Technology has up-ended the idea that parents are wiser because they are older. Teenagers grew up with the internet, with smartphones and social media. They are often adept at evading parental control. For example, parents may confiscate a phone, unaware that the child has another phone hidden away.

The popularity of platforms and apps changes very rapidly so while parents are worrying about Facebook, young people have moved on to Snapchat (and probably that became passé five minutes ago).

Need to protect

Damien Cullen, the health and family editor of this paper, recently wrote a wry article about erring on the side of over-protectiveness when it came to his 12-year-old daughter's new smartphone. In a memorable sentence, he declared that he had in fact, "erred on the side of a North Korean official showing a tourist around a nuclear site" (

But as I am sure he is well aware, his daughter’s friends may not have such actively involved parents and he cannot shelter her from what she will see on other kids’ devices.

Of course, it is not just teenagers who are at risk. Recently, I watched a baby who seemed to be about a year old make herculean efforts to attract his mother’s attention. He was trying to peer around her phone, waving his little arms and making faces. He slumped down in the buggy when he failed to make her notice him.

Another child might have wailed. I worried more about the fact that he did not. Speech and social development must be affected when cues like this are ignored or when babies are given devices to keep them quiet.

We blame teenagers for their addiction to their phones but, nowadays, parents are often just as addicted, except they call it work.

Part of the answer to the dangers seems to be good old-fashioned communication, that is, talking to children before they are teenagers about what they might encounter online and about how phones are designed to keep you endlessly scrolling and checking.

Sold our souls

But teenage hormones bring squalls, and while being told that you are the worst parent in the world is an occupational hazard, any individual parent trying to maintain boundaries is up against a wider societal problem.

A lot of it probably comes down to recognising that we have sold our souls to giant, capitalist enterprises

A lot of it probably comes down to recognising that we have sold our souls to giant, capitalist enterprises that see us and our children as ants view aphids. Ants are famous for farming aphids for a sticky, sweet substance that ants consume. While there are some benefits to the aphids in that the ants fight off ladybirds and other predators, scientists now believe aphids may be tranquillised by chemicals secreted in the ants’ feet. Also, sometimes ants bite off their wings in order to keep their sedated food source compliant, relocate them without consent or even eat the aphids.

In a Discover magazine blog post, Prof Vincent Jansen of Royal Holloway University comments: "For aphids, ants are a dangerous liaison."

How do we escape from our ant overlords? Maybe we need to rediscover the joys of boredom. According to Blaise Pascal, "all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone". Bet he never foresaw that most people would be perfectly happy to sit quietly so long as there is a glowing screen near at hand.

The technology giants spend fortunes on getting us hooked on their products. The ability to unhook would frustrate that aim and perhaps give us time to work together, first as parents and then as a wider community, to try to fight back against the technology companies’ lack of accountability.

But in an Ireland where our government positively fawns over Google, Apple and Facebook, it seems unlikely that the aphids will ever stage a coup against the ants. Aphids of the world, unite.