Why we love to miss the point
Maybe social media and smartphones aren't the problem
As a parent of teenagers, I find smartphones deeply annoying. The things are like Rings of Power that suck all their adolescent energy and distract them from doing anything vaguely interesting. On some occasions I’ve even begged the kids to watch television instead, which at least feels vaguely wholesome in comparison. ‘Get off your phone,’ I find myself shouting before one of my daughters points out that I, too, am on my phone, perhaps reading the latest article about how the internet is rotting our brains.
I’m sympathetic to the idea of banning social media use for under-16s, since the potential individual downsides seem greater than any upsides. Likewise with smartphones more generally, which are a big coordination problem because it’s very hard for one parent to ban them, cutting off their child from WhatsApp, Snapchat or whatever. There is certainly a case for banning TikTok entirely, if indeed it really is being used by a hostile government to undermine the West.
My impression of social media is that it probably accentuates and exaggerates already existing trends, helping well-adjusted and happy people become even more social, while having a negative effect on those already suffering from serious anxiety or personality disorders. The main downside is that it makes it easier for the unhinged to meet like-minded people and form communities who goad each other on to further extremes.
But I’ve become sceptical of some of the claims made about the role phones and social media play in teenage depression and anxiety, the subject of a recent episode of The Studies Show. (Chiefly, I’m sceptical because the teen anxiety epidemic doesn’t seem to be happening in lots of countries where smartphones are similarly ubiquitous).