How bad are smart phones for people and kids?

The latest research, published on Friday by two psychology professors, combs through about 40 studies that have examined the link between social media use and both depression and anxiety among adolescents. That link, according to the professors, is small and inconsistent.

“There doesn’t seem to be an evidence base that would explain the level of panic and consternation around these issues,” said Candice L. Odgers, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the lead author of the paper, which was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry…

The new article by Ms. Odgers and Michaeline R. Jensen of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro comes just a few weeks after the publication of an analysis by Amy Orben, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, and shortly before the planned publication of similar work from Jeff Hancock, the founder of the Stanford Social Media Lab. Both reached similar conclusions.

“The current dominant discourse around phones and well-being is a lot of hype and a lot of fear,” Mr. Hancock said. “But if you compare the effects of your phone to eating properly or sleeping or smoking, it’s not even close.”

Here is the full NYT piece by Nathaniel Popper.


Depression and anxiety? Okay, now take into account car accidents and other mishaps that occur because people have unlearned what every five year old used to know --- to look where you're going.

And yet, driving is safer now than ever before.

Don't get me wrong, looking at your phone while driving is idiotic and dangerous. However, here as in other topics, the harmful impact of technology has been exaggerated.

Perhaps there are fewer crashes caused by yellow/red light runners, because instead of having their eyes glued to the light, waiting to go, people waiting on green are looking down at their phones.

Don't look just at "accidents" as a sign of how (socially) disruptive cellphone driving has become.

Cellphone drivers routinely drive SLOWER than posted speed limits (I am able to observe this phenomenon regularly, since I own and operate no cellphone).

Cellphone drivers routinely impede traffic flow by missing traffic lights because they were "otherwise occupied". This, too, raises driver frustrations in ways that have not yet been measured adequately.

Cellphone pedestrians increasingly become nuisances, too: supermarket aisles' traffic flow is ALSO disrupted when the cellphone shopper pauses without warning to consult someone about a product purchase (wait for the traffic to go around . . .).

Cellphone pedestrians are walking into other pedestrians, into sidewalk obstructions (mailboxes, utility poles, entire buildings, plate glass) and off of curbs inadvertently to face vehicular traffic.

Back to cellphone drivers, though: has any economist examined the efficiency of driving and fuel consumption in this cellphone-driving world to've emerged in the most recent quarter century?

I see no compelling reason for NOT regulating cellphones so that they cannot function in moving vehicles, just to start with.

Highly dubious and probably outdated claim. If you look at the US, there was a dip from 2008-2012 or so (per 100,000 automobiles), but it's traffic fatalities have been high and growing for years. When you include injuries as well (which you should since they are the majority of injuries), that dip is far less pronounced and the upward trend even more obvious. If one then extrapolates the downward trend before the introduction of smartphones and makes a comparison to how things have subsequently played out, the result is even more stark.
In any case, I refer you to the following:

Or if you want to look at the extrapolation in a US without smartphones that I just rushed through,

Time to update that worldview with newer data.

Come on, what kind of creepy globalist cites UN data on US traffic fatalities? The number of fatalities per 100,000 peaked in the early 70s at 25, and has dropped over 50% and has been around 11 for the last few years. The only recent big uptick is in pedestrian deaths, which is partially due to bigger safer cars.

Cell phone use kills 8 Americans everyday.

Hard to take traffic safety concerns seriously when it's legal to allow a German shepherd to gambol about the front seat of a car careening down the highway.

One hopeful sign toward sensible regulation of traffic:

--concerning forthcoming regulations/prohibitions of "comfort pets" for flyers.

It actually is not legal to allow your dog to interfere with your driving. If you have an accident with a dog in the front seat you put yourself at risk of being found at fault even if the other driver did something that contributed to the accident.

--and God forbid anything happens to the dog.

Speaking with Fritz Machlup, smart phones are like toilets, great to have, but you don't want to be sitting on one all day! :-)

Some people with smart phones do :-)
I saw somewhere a cartoon of a guy sitting on a toilet and holding a smart phone, with the caption: "Smart phones have accomplished what women have failed to do: causing men to sit while peeing."

But did they also look at this groundbreaking Facebook based study, as reported by the Register? - "Facebook let researchers adjust its users' news feeds to manipulate their emotions – and has suggested that such experimentation is routine, which is seemingly how the idea got past the advertising firm's ethics committees.

In 2012, researchers led by the company's data scientist Adam Kramer, manipulated which posts from their friends the sample of nearly 700,000 users could see in their “News feed”, suppressing either positive or negative posts, to see whether either cheerful or downer posts seemed to be emotionally contagious.

With only a user's “agree click” on Facebook's terms and conditions document to provide a fig-leaf of consent to the creepy experiment, researchers from Cornell University, the University of California San Francisco manipulated users' news feeds.

Let's hear from the university:

“The researchers reduced the amount of either positive or negative stories that appeared in the news feed of 689,003 randomly selected Facebook users, and found that the so-called 'emotional contagion' effect worked both ways.”

Cornell Social Media Lab professor Jeff Hancock reports the simple correlation that turned up: “People who had positive content experimentally reduced on their Facebook news feed, for one week, used more negative words in their status updates. When news feed negativity was reduced, the opposite pattern occurred: Significantly more positive words were used in peoples’ status updates.”

Link to the actual study, since it does not seem to have been included in the paper -

I wonder if there's actually a strong cohort effect that these studies are unable to measure.

1. Smart phones reduce the social skills of the entire generation, which causes diffuse mental health impact via peer to peer interactions.
2. If you aren't using smart phone today, you're missing out on a lot of social activity.

Or 2 leads to the exact opposite point, depending on the social activity definition. A generation ago, staring at pages of paper while reading was not considered social activity. Further, talking on the phone with someone was not precisely a social activity either, though a normal part of having a social life.

Today, people remain focused on screens, with the illusion that social media means they are actually engaging in social activity. In contrast, the people actually participating in social activities that involve several people interacting with each other, without constant interruption and distraction caused by electronic devices, are the ones likely not using smart phones.

Good point.

I think it's an age-old fallacy that younger people engaged in activities that I did not do while growing up are somehow falling short of a Platonic ideal of social behavior. Mark Twain made fun of women talking on the telephone 150 years ago.

What if smartphones and new technology are making kids *better* at social interactions, and are better at fulfilling social/belonging needs?

I feel like this is more likely to be true.

Panic about Satanic Ritual Abuse replaced by smartphones.
Before that it was telephones, before that writing. After this, it'll be something else.

Before smartphones, how many satanic scarifices were live streamed?

The cameraphone has changed things in a new way, as mass murder has now become a form of fame and entertainment, at least for a certain group of people.

Approximately none that I know of. Because as far as I know there weren't any.

Writing changed things in a new way--it allowed information to be easily obtained (well, relatively anyway) by anyone. This caused PANIC. As late as the Middle Ages people were still debating on whether society could handle the risks involved in wide-spread literacy.

The printing press made things even worse. Now not only could the ignorant masses read, it was harder to control what they read! Before that, books were largely written by members of the Church (no one else was literate and had sufficient time; this is also why bureaucracy started with religiously-trained folks); now anyone who could read could write a book! And all those weird pagan books could be transcribed and read by (gasp!) people outside the religious orders!!!

Okay, that one actually was a bit of a problem. The re-introduction of Greek and Roman works into the Western cannon precipitated a major societal shift and the Renaissance.

Sorry, but smartphone panic is just the latest verse in this epic saga of failure, one that stretches back as far as Plato. Sure, society is going to change because of this new technology; it can't NOT change, a stimulus needs to have a response. But most of the things people worry about are irrelevant. We frankly are no good at predicting the future.

Writing did change things in a new way. Memory was no longer required to store all the information you would want to recall. You could receive information and history from people hundreds and thousands of miles away. It was groundbreaking. The transformation that writing caused was also very, very.....slow. From its invention from around 3000 BC (+/-) to the 1500's era printing press and widespread literacy, we had millennia to digest the impact of writing.

Television, smartphones, and the internet have transformed the entire world in a generation or two. The way we learn, spend our time, and interact with other people is dramatically different. It's important to have a healthy skepticism regarding this new technology. I also believe it's naive to believe we can even comprehend it's full impact with a study or two. I highly recommend reading "Amusing Ourselves to Death". It's a short read, and includes some fascinating analysis of these shifts in communication and learning, and is unusually prescient considering it was written in the '80s.

I'm not saying that writing didn't change things. I'm saying that the doom-and-gloom prophesies were wrong. Society changed, but didn't exactly degenerate into a horrifying hellscape. Society changed, mostly for the better and always in ways that folks simply couldn't imagine.

But hey, THIS time the doom-and-gloom crowd will be right, eh? Make enough predictions, eventually one or two are bound to come true.

Please note that I'm NOT a technophile. I have a flip phone, a Facebook account to share cute stories about my kids/nieces/nephews, and that's about as far as I've gone in the digital age. I'm not advocating anything but caution when it comes to engaging in behaviors that have a track record of failure that's literally as long as written history.

Ancient Greeks complaining about the newfangled invention of writing, imported from the dastardly Phoenicians. Destroys the ability to memorize Homer in the feckless youth.

I'd like to see an analysis specifically of Jean Twenge's book on the impact of smartphones.

By the age of 15 most kids will have smartphones, at age 10 many fewer. This age group is around 20 million in the US. The value of a subscriber at these ages is high, in the ballpark of 100$ per year. Therefore, the decision of parents to delay smartphones by one year is a 2 billion$ decision for the companies involved, or in other terms money worth influencing decisions over. Thus paraphrasing Carl Sagan, "extremely lucrative claims require extremely careful evidence", and NYT articles and underlying research should be carefully examined.

My first, quick and (at the moment) last reservation is about the use of binary "harm" / "no-harm" language and results. Instead the methodology should look at the distribution of outcomes for people. At least we need to worry about the risk of changing the dispersion of experience due to smartphones or the experience of people in the tails of the society. Sometimes, the tails are stretched, making the happy happier and the distressed even more so, is this a world where business-as-usual is OK?

The public school system's vast resources have been too tempting for the tech industry to leave untouched. I think it would be easier to accept smartphones as neutral or an improvement on an older generation's watching the same "Gilligan's Island" episode for the umpteenth time after school [that's a window into my soul], if the kids didn't spend so much time on screens at school. Learning to make power points, making ample use of copy/paste, following prompts in games that make learning "fun" ...

No control group in the study? I suppose not since it's likely impossible to find one (i.e., a group that isn't glued to their smart phones).

People are diverse, and react to the same stimulus in different ways. We should expect, for relatively new areas of study (smart phones have only been around a decade or so), to have studies coming to very different conclusions, because the main thing we're learning is the limits of human diversity in this regard. It's likely that SOME people are affected by social media the way the panic-mongers say; it's also likely that SOME people are not. The interesting thing isn't whether we all are or not, it's defining those groups in a rigorous fashion.

In other words: How do we know we're dealing with a single population? Answer: We don't. Yet that's the underlying assumption of these studies.

the Stanford Social Media Lab?

That is really great. No basis in evidence huh...but have they looked at the time series??

Why are childhood depression rates steadily climbing - ? What if it’s that living in Smartphone Nation causes the depression, and not whether you yourself choose to use one. Such a question can’t be answered by running some regressions. But “science = data” nowadays so no one even asks.

"Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?"

The researchers who find no serious effects from smart phone use are asking us to believe that real social interaction is not being displaced by a thin (and sometimes noxious) substitute. Anyone with middle-school aged girls can see the harm. My now 30-something daughter says that if she and her friends had had smart phones in middle school, they would have made each other miserable (and at the same time, would have gained frequent but momentary gratification from smart phones).

Somehow, even years ago before people began to worry over this stuff, it was an article of faith with my millennial offspring and his friends that they were lucky to have squeaked through, with a childhood that was mostly pre-ubiquitous-internet and pre-smart-phone.

Why are these academic brainiacs looking at "smart phones" in relative "tech isolation"?


People, their kids, and their pets are not ONLY on "smart phones" for hours each day: they go from wireless phones in their cars as they're driving carelessly to PCs for gaming or laptops for web searches as they multi-task inefficiently, interact with computers for this, that, and the other purpose.

Many of these tech gadgets SPY on them, regardless of how they (the licensee) programs them. Their whereabouts are constantly being monitored, their purchases are constantly being tallied. --and they are PAYING FOR THE PRIVILEGE OF BEING SURVEILLED 24/7/365 (366).

Tech ubiquity has long since become socially ODIOUS in the extreme. (If you have doubts, observe briefly how caring, concerned, and loving couples interact with their cellphones over romantic candlelit dining tables: disgusting and dyspeptic.)

So they look for something with a lens that can't see it, don't see it, then emphatically deny it's mere existence, even though each and every single person with eyes open knows it's true. Here we have a central failing of Scientism and indeed all Modernity. It leads nowhere.

An important issue about the magic phone is that younger people regard it as a reason for not learning things. Since information via Google and the internet is available in moments it's unnecessary to be aware of this information until it's needed. "If I don't know something, I'll just Google it". This way of thinking fails to recognize the difference between information and knowledge. They're not the same thing. The fact that there are 231 cubic inches in a gallon is information, it's not knowledge.

A study claims is false that which is self-evident to any parent of a teenager. Sorry, but I believe the parents over the eggheads. There really are ideas so stupid only an intellectual can believe them.

Apart from the social; alienation of always-on social media, there's another concern that flies mostly under the radar.
What age is the right age to give your kids a smartphone?
The age at which you want them to have 24/7 access to violent, hard core pornography.

This is it needs to have an agenda. Lo and behold: half way down the article, it explains that teenage anxiety is from climate change and income inequality, not cell phone use. Ah, makes sense! Yes, even in what should be a purely scientific article, NYT will find a way to mention the class warfare. For generations, parents have set limits on amount of time in front of TV...because being in front of a screen for hours makes one tired, drowsy and irritable. Phones are no different and likely worse.

To balance that viewpoint, here is a solid critique of the article:

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