Kathy Sheridan: Ditch smartphones and get your real life back

The devices are wonderful but they have evolved into a noxious antisocial habit

The French parliament’s decision to ban phone use anywhere on school grounds by students aged up to 15 or so seems the adult response to a problem most parents cannot address alone.

The French parliament’s decision to ban phone use anywhere on school grounds by students aged up to 15 or so seems the adult response to a problem most parents cannot address alone.

 

A few public stand-offs witnessed in recent weeks merely hint at the relentless battles being fought within families over phone use. In one high-end restaurant, a woman watched tight-lipped as her Junior Cert genius repeatedly picked up his smartphone, tapped, scrolled, smiled knowingly and left it down again, screenside up, rarely taking his eye off it. Attempts at conversation was met with a distracted shrug – normal enough behaviour for bolshy adolescents but rendered particularly provocative and ill-mannered by the phone obsession. The mother, heroically, did not hurl the phone out the window.

Dr Colman Noctor has described gaming addiction – now classified as a mental disorder by the World Health Organisation – as similar to gambling in that it looks for the “hacks in our brains” which keep us captivated and vulnerable. The premise is about engagement. In that respect, at least, it bears comparison to the trickery that hooks smartphone users on the scrolling malaise.

In years to come, this era would be looked back upon as a very dangerous one for children’

A 2017 survey of parents by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation found deep concern about technology’s impact on children’s social and psychological development. Some tech parents are sending children to screen-free schools. Many are limiting or even banning screen-time in the home. Some make it a condition of child-minding that the minder does not scroll on the job.

Silicon Valley parents are ahead of us because they have front-row seats on their industry’s frantic mission to build increasingly addictive products. Some compare it to Big Tobacco marketing, the old trick of hooking customers while young and keeping them for life.

Link to depression

Even before Mark Zuckerberg’s big apology tour, Big Tech was galloping to dampen concerns from a new generation of activist shareholders questioning the industry’s role in the world. The California teacher pension fund has asked Apple to develop software to allow parents more options to limit children’s phone use. It seems obvious, doesn’t it? Trillium Asset Management has submitted a proposal to Facebook, arguing for a risk committee to examine research linking the site to depression and other mental health issues.

More and more, the French parliament’s decision to ban phone use anywhere on school grounds by students aged up to 15 or so seems the adult response to a problem that most parents cannot address alone. The ban was cleverly framed as a child’s legal “right to disconnect” from digital pressures during school hours.

In April, a primary school in Blennerville, Co Kerry – where phone use is already banned but iPads are used in class – began an 11-week pilot programme, banning smart phones and social media apps outside school hours, with the full support of parents. This courageous step was taken after shocking content was found to be circulating in messaging groups that included 11- and 12-year-olds with older teenagers.

In years to come, this era would be looked back upon as a very dangerous one for children, said the school principal, Terry O’Sullivan.

This is beyond doubt – as is the old truism that children learn by example. So with the stakes so high, why is this discussion invariably targeted at schoolchildren?

In France, some legislators argued that the law should go further by extending the phone ban to all staff in schools, thereby making adults set an example. This was dismissed by the education minister, who suggested rather optimistically that the schools phone ban would “make us all reflect on our phone use in society, including adults”. Whereupon one MP remarked that while they were discussing dangerously phone-addicted students unable to concentrate on their studies, scores of their fellow MPs at the session were idly tapping away on their own phones.

Last taboo

In a society where many of us already feel heavily constrained by dos and don’ts, excessive smartphone use may be one of the last taboos. But perhaps the time has come for some hard-hitting campaigns – separately from the catastrophic road safety ads – urging adults to reflect on the example they set for young people as well as the impact on the social network on which we all depend. A video, say, of a parent lost in scrolling while pushing a buggy. A table of adults in a pricey restaurant, each glued to a screen. A family watching a television drama while tap-tapping about it separately. A couple stranded briefly at an airport, seated together yet still tweeting each other for maximum public notice of their calamitous ordeal. Looked at from the outside, we are nonsensical.

This is not about turning the clock back. Smartphones are wonderful but have evolved into a noxious habit. The typical adult user touches his or her phone 2,617 times a day – actions like typing, tapping and swiping the phone’s screen counted as a “touch – according to one study. It’s time to take a tip from the anti-smoking campaigns. Take a good look at our own senseless, often obnoxious behaviour; create more and bigger smartphone-free zones; brand phones as rather pathetic props for those who won’t or can’t be bothered to engage with real-life people and events; start to wean ourselves down to a few touches a day.

Start taking our lives back.

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