I was in an airport a few weeks ago when I noticed an interesting scene. A mother and her young son -- he looked to be about 9 or 10 - were sitting on the seat across from me, both looking at their phones. Mom apparently was having some trouble with the reception on hers, so she asked to borrow her son's phone. He gave it to her, and that's when she asked a rather shocking question: "What's your passcode?"
Not only did this prepubescent child have a phone, not only was it password protected, but his mom didn't even know the password. Could there be a better illustration of modern "parenting"?
I thought of this exchange when I read the article just published in the Atlantic, arguing that the current generation of adolescents are being destroyed by their iPhone addictions. We've all heard these arguments before, but, seeing as we haven't done anything to fix the problem, we probably need to hear them again. As the author explains, kids today are isolated and anti-social. They don't do anything but stare at their phones all day. They're lethargic. They're unhappy. Rates of adolescent suicide and depression are skyrocketing, and it is not a coincidence that this spike has occurred in direct correlation with smart phones becoming a household item for kids.
Yes, they're less likely than previous generations to engage in physically risky behavior, but that's because they don't leave their homes. They are utterly immersed in the world behind the screen, and it is changing everything about them. The way they think, communicate, relate. Even their postures are being disfigured because they spend so much time looking down. Their priorities have changed most of all, mainly in the fact that they have none. They don't crave independence, which used to be a defining characteristic of young people. They aren't itching to get their driver's license like we were. They just want to be on their phones.
According to the Atlantic, the number of teenagers who get together with their friends on a regular basis has dropped by 40 percent in the last 15 years. And that's not because they've decided they really like hanging out with their families. They don't talk to their families. They're just in their rooms, on their phones. The average kid today spends 9 hours a day staring at screens. If you figure 8 or 9 hours for sleep, and you assume that they aren't staring at their phones for at least some portion of the school day, that leaves approximately zero hours of non-sleep, non-school, non-screen time. It's bad. It's worse than any of us can even comprehend. This is not how you raise human beings. This is how you make machines.
I was at a family reunion on a lake this past weekend. There was a jet ski and a pontoon and footballs and fishing rods and all kinds of fun, active things to do. But the under 18 set spent most of the time just looking at their phones. Hours and hours of looking at their phones. Even when we took the boat out, they had their phones with them. Dinner time, they had their phones. We would sit down to play cards at night, and they were on Snapchat the whole time. They physically could not stop themselves from pulling out their phones. Their parents kept telling them "put down the phone, put down the phone, put down the phone," but you may as well give a needle to a heroin addict and expect him to keep it in his pocket.
To call this unhealthy is too much of an understatement. I think un-human would be a better way of putting it. People justify it by saying, well, at least they're safe. But I'd rather they be a little unsafe, to be honest. I'd rather they be out doing the kinds of reckless things I used to do as a kid than to be sitting in their rooms shooting videos of themselves. Not everything I did as a child was safe, but at least it was real. It was human. It was experience. There was substance to it.
I remember we would go into the woods in front of my house to an old abandoned pavilion. For some reason it had become kind of a dumping ground for old TVs and appliances and glass doors. We used to take big sticks and smash the junk, just because it's fun to smash stuff. Then we would go and play basketball for the rest of the day. Sometimes we would play tackle football. Unsupervised. Disconnected. I don't think any of us had phones at this point. "Be home for dinner," we were told, and our parents didn't see or hear from us again until we came home. And we were hungry and dirty when we returned. Our legs were sore. We had stories to tell about the adventures we'd had. And some stories we thought better to keep to ourselves.
Yes, people would get hurt, especially during the football games. Someone got his front tooth knocked out. I think a kid had a finger broken. There would be fights too, of course. I tackled a guy far out of bounds once because I didn't like how he gloated about breaking my tackle on the previous play. He came up swinging, rightfully so. There was a little shoving, a couple punches thrown. Someone broke it up. We moved past it. We always did. We were boys. This is what boys do, or used to do.
And on days when it was too hot or cold for all that, we would sit in my friend's garage and play cards. We didn't have enough chairs so we used milk crates and boxes and a broken VCR. The VCR was the best seat. The milk crate had a crack down the middle that would pinch you if you sat on it. Whoever was losing in cards had to sit on it. We played video games sometimes, but even that we did together. It was a social activity. I wasn't very good because I didn't have a system at home, so I would get mocked pretty relentlessly. I didn't cry about being bullied, though. I just shot back at whoever was making the comment. Made fun of him for his girly clothes or for some embarrassing thing he'd said at the lunch table the day before. We'd laugh about it, and that was the end of it.
It was childhood. Or it was what childhood used to be. But childhood is a phenomenon that doesn't seem to really exist anymore. A childhood spent on social media is not a childhood. It isn't a life. It isn't anything.
Speaking of stealing childhoods, left out of the discussion so far has been another very important factor: pornography. The average child is first exposed to porn at the age of 11. Most of that exposure comes through the phone his parents have given him. And we're not talking about photos in Playboy here. We're talking about deranged, hardcore porn. The kind of stuff the average adult 50 years ago would never see or even know exists. We like to find some kind of silver lining in the smart phone obsession by pointing out that kids are having less sex and getting pregnant less often than previous generations. This is true, but it's only because they've replaced human contact with porn and sexting. Is this really progress? Is a kid who doesn't have sex until 20 but has been religiously viewing hardcore porn since the age of 10 really better off than a kid of some past decade who didn't see a naked girl until he hooked up with his homecoming date? I'm not advocating for either approach, but it's hard for me to see how the current dynamic is an improvement. I see it, actually, as far more disturbing and destructive.
So, this is it. This is what our kids' minds and souls are marinating in. This is what they do with their time. Snapchat and iPhone apps and texting and porn. Not pick up games. Not adventures in the woods. Not running and playing and getting into little scuffles. Just their room, their bed, their phone, a camera. What is this? Who are these people we've made? They aren't children, that's for sure.
Fortunately, there is an easy solution. It goes like this: don't give your kid a smart phone. I say again: don't give your kid a freaking smart phone. On average, kids are now given their first smart phone at the age of 10. That means millions are getting them at 9, 8, 7, or even younger. There's no valid reason for it. Oh, you want to be able to get a hold of your kid at any moment? Well, I think that's a bit excessive, but, fine, get him a flip phone with no internet access. They still sell those, and you don't have to mortgage the house to afford them. Why does he need a phone with internet and apps and games at the age of 8? Or 10? Or 11? Or 12? Or 13? Why does he ever need one? Why would you ever buy him one before he has a job and is able to buy it for himself?
Answer: there is no good answer. He doesn't need a smart phone. No child in history has needed a smart phone, which is how so many children managed to survive without them. I've had this discussion with parents many times, and the only justification I've ever heard is that the world is different now and "this is what kids do." Yes, it is what they do. They do it because we allow them to do it. We don't just allow it -- we facilitate it, fund it, make actual financial sacrifices to ensure that they can have this device that will destroy their ability to relate with human beings. "Here, junior, I just spent $700 so that you could develop a porn addiction before you hit puberty. Enjoy!"
Why do we sit here as parents acting utterly powerless to exercise any influence over the children we're raising? Who runs your household? Who owns everything and makes all the money? If you don't want your 10 year old to spend his entire childhood staring lifelessly into the void like some kind of lobotomy patient, you have absolute power to impose that desire. Just don't buy him a phone. It's very simple. What's he going to do? Beat you up? Rob a bank so he can buy one himself? Well, at least that would be some form of physical activity. Seriously, what are you afraid of? Why are people so petrified of not obeying their child's every demand?
The only "defense" of the phone itself is that maybe it won't be that bad. "Well, if I oversee their phone habits, maybe they won't be COMPLETELY addicted to it." But they will become completely addicted to it. And, anyway, in that defense you have admitted that nothing really good or constructive will come from the phone. You have conceded that it's a bad thing, by and large. Your only hope is that it won't be so bad. But if we know that a thing has the potential to be extremely harmful, and has indeed been extremely harmful for almost every child, and has almost zero chance of being significantly helpful or positive, why in God's name would we conclude that we ought to buy this probably extremely harmful and definitely not extremely good thing for our kids?
I don't fully understand the psychology of it, but it's clear that there is something about the world behind the screen that sucks us in and dominates our lives. The pull is almost magnetic. It requires an immense amount of discipline to properly regulate how much time you spend in this realm. I have to be here for my job, and it is often difficult for me, as an adult, to know when to put the phone or laptop down and return to real life. Most nights, I tuck it all away and do something else with my time, but there are nights when I pick up my phone just to check one thing, to respond to an email, to post something on Facebook, whatever, and next thing you know it's three hours and 18 YouTube clips later and I feel like I've spent the entire evening in a coma. Can I expect my children to resist the urge to become screen-obsessed robots if I can barely resist it myself? Can I regulate my children's phone time if I can hardly regulate my own?
Well, perhaps that answers my earlier question. Parents enlist smart phones as a form of daycare so that they don't have their own Facebook and Netflix time interrupted. We want our kids to be zombies because zombies are easier to deal with (until they start feasting on human flesh). The fact that it robs them of their childhood, obliterates their social skills, steals their joy and vigor for life, and exposes them to every form of sexual debauchery known to man is a price worth paying. At least it gets them out of our hair. We've got other things to do. Well, not things to do, but websites to visit, links to click, videos to watch, likes to count.
Of course our children are zombies. They're being raised by them, after all.
To see more from Matt Walsh, visit his channel on TheBlaze.