Somewhere between 2.1 and 2.5 billion humans currently own a smartphone. While early models were released as early as 1992, the first iPhone (a good line-in-the-sand for widespread adoption of the technology) was released in 2007. In a little over a decade, these machines have become ubiquitous throughout the world. In the USA, around 70% of adults have smartphones.
What about children? Research suggests 22% of young children, 60% of tweens, and 84% of teenagers currently use a smartphone.
While these devices provide unparalleled access to information, their impact on the mind is barely understood. Researchers are just beginning to look at the impact that focusing on a screen all day has on human development, and the conclusions are devastating.
There has been an unprecedented surge in depression, anxiety, and suicide, and a marked decrease in sociability. Teenagers are spending more time worrying about whether their online acquaintances like their recent post than they are with their friends hanging out in person and developing social skills. The average teenager spends Friday nights at home, interacting with a machine, instead of out with friends at a game or event.
Those who have worked within the industry describe the work they’ve done in stark terms. Often relating apps to slot machines, they say that the smartest minds of a generation are spending their time getting teenagers to click on ads and obsess over social media posts to see how many acquaintances respond or react to their posts.
In short, many experts are worrying that the widespread adoption of a poorly understood technology has destroyed the psyches of a generation.
Smartphones are turning our kids into anxious and depressed zombies. Parents can’t compete - we need to help people take control and make smartphone use healthy and productive. Asking technology companies to regulate themselves is unfeasible - they will always want to maximize engagement regardless of the social impact. Government must provide guardrails to keep technology from corroding our mental and emotional well-being, particularly for young people. I love my smartphone too but we need to get a grip on the impact of this technology for the sake of our children.
Problems to be Solved
- New technologies are developing and being adopted throughout society faster than we can understand their repercussions.
- Smartphones are having an untold impact on our children that will affect them throughout their lifetimes.
- Work to understand the impact of emerging technologies on human health and behavior
- Find a way to promote responsible smartphone usage both within the industry and within the users
As President, I will…
- Create a Department of the Attention Economy that focuses specifically on smartphones, social media, gaming and chat apps and how to responsibly design and use them, including age restrictions and guidelines.
- Create a “best practices” design philosophy for the industry to minimize the antisocial impacts of these technologies on children who are using them. Ask Tristan Harris to lead.
- Direct the Department to investigate the regulation of certain companies and apps. Many of these companies essentially function as public utilities and news sources – we used to regulate broadcast networks, newspapers and phone companies. We need to do the same thing to Facebook, Twitter, Snap and other companies now that they are the primary ways people both receive information and communicate with each other.