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You Can’t Outsmart Smartphones with Teenagers

May 8th, 2024 | 3 min. read

By Patrick Miller


This post is part of a series exploring Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death chapter by chapter. You need not read the book or previous points to appreciate this one. You can find part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, part 4 here, part 5 here, part 6 here. In this essay, I will respond to Chapter 6: The Age of Show Business.

After the school banned messaging apps on their smart devices, they assumed that they’d put an end to all the cyberbullying taking place in group texts. Of course, there’s no way to end bullying, but they realized that digital communication made it easier for teens to say awful things to one another they’d never say in person.

I’m sure angry people on Twitter have never experienced this.

Back to the school: their well-meant strategy backfired. Kids used their Google Docs app to create shared documents about their peers where anyone could write anything anonymously. At least the group texts required them to use their real names. On Google Docs, they could have totally anonymous conversations. The best part was that no teachers or parents had any idea where to find the docs. If they ever got caught, they could simply start a new one in a subfolder no one could find.

Of course, we could just take away the devices, but many of us are convinced that the positive uses for teenagers outweigh the devices’ toxic effects, and that with the right filters and controls, we can keep things under control.

In 1985, Neil Postman mourned the naivety of those who believed they could curtail the influence of television and protect literate culture. One person turned the top of their TV into a bookcase they needed. Someone else said their TV was their best source of light for schoolwork. But Postman concludes, 

I bring forward these quixotic uses of television to ridicule the hope harbored by some that television can be used to support the literate tradition. Such a hope represents exactly what Marshall McLuhan used to call “rear-view mirror” thinking: the assumption that a new medium is merely an extension or amplification of an older one; that an automobile, for example, is only a fast horse, or an electric light a powerful candle. To make such a mistake in the matter at hand is to misconstrue entirely how television redefines the meaning of public discourse. Television does not extend or amplify literate culture. It attacks it.

The problem with so many of the strategies we use to limit the negative effects (e.g., massive increases in anxiety, depression, suicidality, sleeplessness, loneliness) of social media and smartphones on teenagers is that they ignore the structure of the medium. 

Let me give an example. A friend of mine suggested that getting rid of teenage smartphones at dinner and taking them after 9:00 p.m. might resolve many of the problems they cause. I agree that these are healthy steps for both teenagers and parents. As a rule, I try to follow them personally and they do help me stay more sober.

The problem is that this approach is modeled on how TV works in three ways:

      1. Turn off the TV, and its influence is simply gone. Yes, the shows continue as scheduled, but that doesn’t matter so long as you’re not watching. That’s because TV is a synchronous medium—it happens in time and over time. Social media and messaging are asynchronous. You might not check your texts (or Google doc) for three hours, but whenever you do, it’s all still there. In fact, the possibility that something could be there is part of what makes it so addictive: we release more dopamine when we anticipate a reward than when we receive it.

      2. The TV is far less likely to cause cravings and distractions when you don’t use it. If you turn on the TV, it’s totally possible you might not find anything that interesting, or you might spend a lot of time searching through channels. That’s because humans make the schedule, and you’re stuck with that schedule. Even with streaming, you have to find what you want.

        But social media platforms are powered by sophisticated recommender algorithms that not only scrape your data but use what they scrape to deliver you exactly what will keep you on the screen. This means that the apps are highly addicting in a way not even TV can compete with. So even when you take away the smartphone, your teen is probably experiencing ghost vibrations and alerts, thinking about what might be happening while they’re gone, and being mentally distracted by the craving they’re experiencing.

      3. TVs are big. This is so prosaic that I hesitate to say it, but it matters. Sneaking a TV into your room when you’re not supposed to have it is a feat. A smartphone? Not so much. And this principle is bigger than secret late-night Instagram binges. Every parent I talk to who has given their child a smartphone has at least one story about how their child worked around their rules, filters, and systems to get what they wanted. So you can try your best to keep their digital syringe under lock and key with fancy routers, filters, and controls—but you’re forgetting that if your child is addicted, he’ll act like an addict.

Postman knew the secret to resisting TV’s influence: Get rid of your TV.

The same applies when it comes to teenage smartphone use. Stop treating it like a little TV you think you can control. Treat it like what it is: a highly addicting behavior that’s dangerous to teenagers’ mental health. If that means you need to throw it away, then please love your kid enough to send it to the dumpster. If that means you never give them the phone to begin with, then please love your kid enough to protect them.

Patrick Miller

Patrick Miller (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is a pastor at The Crossing. He offers cultural commentary and interviews with leading Christian thinkers on the podcast Truth Over Tribe, and is the coauthor of the forthcoming book Truth Over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, Not the Donkey or the Elephant. He is married to Emily and they have two kids.

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