It’s Sunday afternoon at the Suntec City Starbucks. The two boys, no older than 12, are sitting side by side in a dim corner booth. They do not talk. They do not look at each other. Despite finishing a large sugary frappucino between them, the boys are completely motionless. Each is lost in his own iPhone, their faces made ghostly by the screen’s pale light.
Their mother scrolls through her own feed with one disinterested finger, squinting through thick prescription glasses.
Sounds familiar? I witness this family scene everywhere and it never fails to unsettle me. Somewhere in our imagination, there is an ‘ideal’ childhood of playgrounds, sandboxes and breathless games of catching. A Hallmark-greeting-card childhood that has long been replaced by the modern reality of an iChildhood, with more screentime than swingtime.
Perhaps this is inevitable in Singapore, which boasts the highest smartphone penetration in the world. Working adults will certainly find it harder to unplug from their devices, but what about our kids?
According to a pilot study conducted by think-tank DQ Institute and the Nanyang Technological University in 2016, it was found that 12-year-olds in Singapore spent an average of 6.5 hours each day using electronic devices. It’s high time we asked the question:
Should our kids get smartphones?
The short answer is no.
First and foremost, everyone seems to forget that smartphones are lethal. Every year, 26 per cent of car accidents in the United states happen because someone is too busy texting when they should keeping their eyes on the road.
If adults can’t be trusted to text and drive, there’s no reason kids should be allowed to text and walk. Which is how 446 UK pedestrians lost their lives last year.
These are, however, the obvious and inescapable dangers with no age restrictions. I’m more concerned about the invisible dangers which present themselves specifically to the children who are allowed free rein of their smartphones.
Technology moves quickly and it’s easy to forget that the oldest smartphone in existence is only 10 years old. At 10 years of age, the tobacco industry was still telling everyone that cigarettes freshened your breath and smoking would help you live forever.
Hence, nobody is sure how smartphones will affect children in the long run but the few studies that have emerged are far from promising. There is good evidence to suggest that smartphone usage reduces kids’ learning ability at an age when learning is most important.
According to a London School of Economics study conducted across four cities, academic performance improved when mobile phones were banned. After the schools banned phones on their premises, test scores improved by 6.4 per cent annually — equal to an extra week of classes. Research conducted by Harvard child psychologist Richard Freed arrived at basically the same conclusion: Smartphone usage had a detrimental effect on learning because “usage is dominated by entertainment, not learning”.
It makes perfect sense. If you’re wondering whether the chicken has four toes or three, the smartphone is a godsend. Unfortunately, googling is not the same as learning. Much of useful learning happens through the tedious repetition of mundane tasks until they become second nature. You don’t ace chemistry without familiarising yourself with the periodic table. You can’t play Chopin without practising your musical scales for hours until you can do it with eyes closed.
Malcolm Gladwell calls it the 10,000-hour rule. I call it common sense.
Smartphones are good for looking up info (did you know that Abraham Lincoln was an elite wrestler?) but it’s nothing but a distraction from the business of serious learning through practice (is Singapore news fake news?). How can you get better at the painful job of practising trigonometry if there is a funny meme, a text (hey hey, do you guys wanna have dinner next tuesday?) or a piece of clickbait popping up on your newsfeed every few seconds?
You might think that the above paragraph imitating digital overload is stupid, but this is your brain on smartphone convenience. (Yessss, let’s do dinner) It takes supernatural discipline to stay focused (I can’t do tuesday, how about friday instead?) and I doubt if any 10 year old kid can avoid such distractions. (Emma Watson alleges that these pictures of Kim Kardashian’s butt are photoshopped).
Nobody can confirm it for humans just yet, but digital overstimulation after birth turned a bunch of healthy lab rats into hyperactive addicts. In a maze challenge, the digital rats proved dumber and slower than their offline peers. Who’s to say our kids are not going down that same path every time they download an app?
It is not just test scores that suffer under phone addiction. More importantly, smartphones are killing kindness because every minute of screen time takes away from the human interaction upon which our empathy depends.
American comedian Louis C.K. has a popular video about why he doesn’t allow phones for his two daughters. His rationale is simple but compelling – when you’re nasty to someone in real life, their tears serve as a visible judgment upon your actions. Through a process of trial and error, kids will learn empathy and the acceptable boundaries that define “nice” behaviour.
This doesn’t happen on your phone. If you call someone “fatass” at the playground, the Shakespearean drama that ensues will be an education on graciousness, revenge and the importance of getting along. Call someone “fatass” on social media and it’s just a lol moment.
You do not see the consequences of your actions and so you learn nothing. There’s even a chance that the Internet will validate your nastiness with ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ because it’s funny. Meanwhile, the victim suffers in silence.
The point here is this – so much of empathy or emotional intelligence depends upon the ability to see things from another’s point of view. To feel as they feel and to suffer, even briefly, as they do. My worry for the smartphone kids is that they will never learn this skill, either because they’re too glued to a screen to care about real people or because the virtual world offers no chance for them to understand that actions have consequences.
Perhaps you find all of this a little ironic because you’re reading this on your mobile phone. At The Pride, we like to think that we buck the trend of nasty Internet news. But the truth is, we can feature countless examples of acts of kindness and everyday heroes, but no website can really lay claim to inspiring genuine kindness. It cannot teach you to feel that uncomfortable lump in your throat when you see an elderly cleaner who is struggling. It cannot reproduce the empathy from which kindness originates.
To do that, you have to turn off your phone and take a good hard look at people’s faces.
If you want your children to feel and to sympathise, turn off that digital pacifier. Let them play, fight, argue and cry. Let them make amends and fight and make amends again.
It might be more tiring for everyone involved, but that’s the only way learning ever happens.