Today's scares over smartphones are largely indistinguishable from yesterday's technology-driven moral panics

Originally published at:


But let’s keep in mind the rock-solid certainty that children were being destroyed by the technologies that came before, from the waltz to the novel.

The conclusion seems inescapable: kids have always been no damn good, and they should have got off my lawn before the dawn of time. They were all destroyed by technology, including myself.


True, the “moral panics” have always been overblown, but it’s undeniable that some of the technologies mentioned, like TV, phones, and the internet really have changed our societies in unintended ways, some negative… Whether those unintended negatives outweigh the positives is an important question, and also how we might take steps to mitigate those negatives without completely abandoning technological development is what we should be asking…


Is there, for instance, a control group of teens who spent an equivalent amount of time watching TV in the 70s or playing arcade video games in the 80s or in internet chat rooms in the 90s? There is not.

I realize I’m twisting the author’s point a bit, but isn’t this at least partially the reason to suspect that the ways smartphones are affecting kids may be more profound than those from video games or chat rooms? Sometimes things are different.

There weren’t toddlers sitting in a grocery cart playing video games or watching tv or using chat rooms, dead silent staring at a screen without interacting with anyone or anything around them. None of those things created the feedback loops that smartphones enable.


Unfortunately, there seems to be a growing number of people who don’t want to focus on the important questions. All they want is to derail discussion, thought, and/or studies. When the topic is automation and job loss, they bring up buggy whip makers. If it is climate change, they’ll tell you that no one can predict the weather, or that extremes have been noted throughout history. Their need to believe that nothing is wrong and everything will be fine runs deep.


Yeah there’s something fundamentally flawed with those kind of anecdotal retorts that i can’t put my finger on exactly… They’re using a historical analogy as though nothing ever really changes and the market magically delivers a better solution forever… Like you say, their faith in progress goes beyond rationality.


Have you read Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up yet? I seem to be referencing it a lot lately; it’s so terribly apropos.


This reminds me of something I read where Socrates was against the technology of writing

edit: Wondermark also has one about the evils of the telephone from 1889 and monks versus the printing press.



Meh. I’ve thought a lot lately about what having a smart phone has given me vs. what it has taken away. And honestly it has taken far more than it has given. I am pretty reliant on Whatsapp for my work, but as soon as I can, I am dumping my phone. I really can’t think of anything else I get from it that I am very interested in keeping around. It’s not like just because there is a technology that is really prevalent in society it must necessarily be a positive thing. I like the internet a bunch but that doesn’t mean I need it in my pocket all the time.

1 Like

I’m a relative latecomer to smartphones (held out until 2013), but I don’t let them rule my life. Part of that may be that when I want to engage in online discussions, I’d much rather have a real keyboard in front of me, and I don’t care for apps that try to substitute for just using a browser (news apps and such). Before I install an app, I ask myself “what is the use case?” and also keep in mind what permissions it wants and whether the permissions are relevant. A metronome app shouldn’t access my location, for instance, while it’s quite relevant for a lightning locator (very handy when I’m on a bike ride).

On the other hand, my FaceTwit presence is nil. No Instagram, no Snapchat, none of that. Strava is probably the closest thing I have to a “social” app, but I use a pseudonym there as well.


Also, the whole premise of arguments like this is that the world changed and it turned out alright. But the real question is what are alternative paths which we didn’t take. What are those? And how do they compare to what we are currently living? Maybe there were better paths which are now closed off as possibilities. Maybe a world without TV would have been better. Obviously there is no way of finding out and the measures are all subjective, but these are the important questions.


The science is possibly indicating that staring at computer and phone screens after sunset may lead to insomnia and overall reduced sleep, making people feel tired and irritable. So there’s that.


So Facebook is definitely zuckerpunching our feels; but concerns over what are, in a great many cases, de-facto Facebook drips are just hysteria?

I’m not sure we can have both here. Similar arguments can be made RE: smartphones, pretty much the best surveillance device people will pay you to carry. Neither proves that everything people do with phones is gnawing their souls all the time; but it’s not as though smartphone use, on average, exactly inspires conviction that whatever theoretical best case one imagines(a digital native with a pocket supercomputer connected to all human knowledge…) is actually happening.


Very nice. A dozen entries into the comment thread on BB, and every single one of them demonstrates more critical thinking ability than whoever wrote the original piece for Wired. Keep up the good work!


Thus, it’s very important not to trust people like ourselves.

1 Like

Consider the source. Wired magazine tries to be with computer tech, the way Playboy wanted to be with sex. They’re only missing a centerfold to make the analogy complete.

It’s not in Wired’s best interest, financially speaking, to bite the hand that feeds it.


No, but I’ll check it out.

1 Like

I’m not entirely suspicious of the claim, but a lot of those studies are designed to just say whatever someone wanted them to say. It’s at best correlation, not causation. An equivalent study could be done to prove that not having insomnia and therefore going to bed before sunset leads to less looking at screens after sunset and overall reduced looking at screens. Could also wonder whether they had a control group of night shift workers, or early birds who look at screens before sunrise, etc. It’s a 24-hour world, some people just haven’t adjusted yet.

1 Like

I think that the fact that most post-birth and childhood deaths are now avoided has probably a much bigger impact on the current and future evolution of the human species, larger than any cultural change. And it has interesting moral implications too.