TOBY SHAPSHAK: Life with or without screens
Smartphones and social media are closer to ‘crack cocaine than to candy’, but they are the way people communicate now
Apart from the implosion of our trust in social media, 2018 will go down as the year we discovered just how bad smartphones are for us. Even though they have become an integral part of our lives, there is a global pushback against their damaging effects — not surprisingly, from Silicon Valley itself.
"It’s the height of irony," former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said at the Discovery leadership summit last month. "If you go to Silicon Valley, parents are doing everything they can to keep their own children off screen devices because they understand how addictive these devices are and how the content on the device becomes an alternative reality."
She was talking about a New York Times article in October that highlighted this trend: "The people who are closest to a thing are often the most wary of it. Technologists know how phones really work, and many have decided they don’t want their own children anywhere near them."
Two ex-Facebook executives have decried, respectively, how they helped create the "bright dings of pseudo-pleasure" and how these "dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works".
Clinton and the remorseful executives are preaching to the converted with me. Last year I removed Facebook and Messenger, which are the worst offenders for me. I’ve survived without Facebook on my phone and my life hasn’t suffered — in fact I have spent more time with my family.
How do I allow my child’s computer skills to grow without him becoming addicted?
Perhaps one of the most telling admissions of the dangers of screens and the addictive nature of social media in the New York Times article came from Athena Chavarria, a former executive assistant at Facebook and now at Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropic arm, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. She said: "I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children." The former editor of Wired magazine, Chris Anderson, told the paper: "On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine."
Several studies have bemoaned how bad social media is for young people’s mental health, including one by the Royal Society for Public Health, which said it’s "more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol". Last December Facebook conceded people "report feeling worse afterward". Nobody calls it "depression" but that is what these dopamine-fuelled hits are producing.
But smartphones and social media aren’t going away. In a while I will have to tackle how my 18-month-old son is exposed to screens.
Gaming is the new way kids and teenagers spend their leisure time and interact with their peers. I believe computer-gaming skills will define the next generation of interfaces, especially in virtual reality.
How do I allow my son’s computer skills to develop without him becoming addicted? I’m not the only parent facing this dilemma. Any suggestions are welcome but, meanwhile, we’re totally avoiding screen time.
• Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff magazine (stuff.co.za)