Facebook. Instagram. Snapchat. Candy Crush. Tinder. An endless world of scrolling, swiping and snapping, stored in a device that fits in your pocket. Generation Y has become ‘the smartphone generation’. For young people, the smartphone is a divine object; the Light of Heaven exudes not from the sky above but from the screen below, and can be adjusted with a slide of the finger. Losing your phone is no longer an issue of wasted money, but the cause of an immediate existential crisis – how can one solve the problems of life without Google providing five million answers in half a second? On the streets of every city in the world, hordes of people assume the same position: arm bent, neck craned, eyes glued downwards at their phone, the hand’s attention-seeking, narcissistic twin. The constant connectivity enabled by mobile devices, Wi-Fi and 4G has brought great benefits to society but, with each new child who masters Subway Surfer before speech, the problems that smartphones cause for young people become increasingly apparent.
The technological hypnotisation of children now starts almost from birth. Researchers at the University of Iowa found that 90% of children had ‘moderate ability’ to use a mobile device by the age of two. By four, toddlers can be addicted to a screen. For children everywhere, chats are being replaced by WhatsApps, emotions by emojis and fresh air by the iPad Air. Year 7 boys at my old school no longer rush to the tennis court on hearing the lunchtime bell but flock to a tree stump next to it, the site of a PokéGym. Whereas we attacked each other with two-footed challenges and screamed at the selfish kid who never passed, they stand in silence and attack with ‘sludge bombs’ and ‘water pulses’, delivered with a single tap.
The proliferation of the smartphone to ever-younger children is feeding the epidemic of teenage smartphone addiction. In the same way that a smoker craves nicotine, the modern teenager can never go too long without looking at their phone. The hand of a millennial inevitably gravitates towards their pocket, desperate to alleviate the crushing fear that they could be missing out on the latest gossip, gaming challenge or group-chat banter. The effects this can have on young people are significant: social anxiety, reduced child-parent interaction, obesity and depression have all been recognised as risks of excessive exposure to phones.
The smartphone has created an urge for instancy, making young people lazy. The omniscience of Siri makes acquiring knowledge seem pointless. Why improve your mental maths when you have 24/7 access to a calculator? Why learn a language when Google can translate for you? Why read a map when your phone can direct you anywhere in the world? Even in the world of dating youngsters are taking the easy, artificial route. Generation X met their future husbands and wives in lectures, societies, pubs and clubs, but millennials don’t need to be patient or exert effort – they’ve got Tinder. They can evaluate the potential of a hundred suitors in a hundred seconds, without looking up from their phone.
For many 18-year-olds starting university, smartphones and social media can make settling in considerably more difficult. First, you befriend your flatmates on Facebook before you’ve even got to university. A great idea, yes, but the internet always creates a disparity between expectation and reality. First-day disappointment inevitably follows when the girl down the hall doesn’t look quite like she did in her profile picture, or the guy next door who had cracking banter on Messenger turns out to be an introvert with no social skills. Your schoolmates, on the other hand, appear to have made new lifelong already. Well, according to their Snapchat story, that facade of perfect life adopted by the young. Then, during those awkward, hungover afternoons in freshers’ week, faced with a choice between venturing out from under the duvet or staying in bed, you choose the latter. After all, reminiscing on FaceTime with your secondary school ‘BFF’ is much easier than trying to converse with your new neighbour, whose knowledge of you is entirely based on the embarrassing revelations made during ‘Never Have I Ever’ the night before. Standing nervously outside the first lecture knowing nobody, the phone again provides a welcome relief; you can bury your head in the screen to avoid an actual, real-life conversation with a stranger. It is easy to see how, for some students, the smartphone can make it very difficult for the university experience to fulfil their high expectations.
Kids around the world won’t stop asking for iPhones, and parents won’t stop buying them. As much as it would be great, the recently re-released Nokia Brick is unlikely to achieve commercial success. But perhaps we need to reconsider our unconditional worship of the smartphone and its many benefits, and reflect instead on some of the problems it can cause for the development of young people.