Are our children masters or slaves of their smartphones?

Summary:Today's youth and their smartphones are virtually inseparable. What does this relationship mean for the always-connected generation?

Matt Baxter-Reynolds

Matt Baxter-Reynolds

Masters

or

Slaves

Charlie Osborne

Charlie Osborne

Best Argument: Slaves

17%
83%

Audience Favored: Slaves (83%)

The moderator has delivered a final verdict.

Opening Statements

Kids know what they’re doing

Matt Baxter-Reynolds: Issues have always been created by the fact that children grow up in a world separated by a huge ocean of time from that of their parents.

My dad grew up in the 1940s. I grew up in the 1970s. The sociological changes over that period, over any period for any generation are always going to be profound.

There’s a word I like for kids of the current generation: “screenagers”. It always seems that those whippersnappers are always staring into computer, tablet, and smartphone screens.

That causes consternations for parents who don’t see that it’s just a sociological shift. Screenagers use their smartphones and other compute devices to be social in a way that parents who experienced childhood prior to that technology being available don’t readily understand.

But post-PC technology like smartphones are purely relationship-centric. They don’t work or make any sense without the underlying relationships. So don’t worry, old fogey parents (like me), your kids know what they’re doing. They’re just being differently social.

Being 'connected' is taking over

Charlie Osborne: Children are slaves to their smartphones because we've made them so. Mobile devices offer an extension to social groups through texting, email and, more recently, social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. This is in itself not a bad thing -- the Internet can bring us closer together and offers a plethora of opportunities later on in life for work and study. However, as mobile adoption is encouraged by parents early on -- whether to give families a way to contact each other in emergencies or simply to keep children entertained -- addiction and reliance can be introduced early on.

It is often difficult to pry children away from their gadgets -- whether in the classroom, when out for a meal or in social situations. These sort of behaviors, replicated by others around them including parents, can run the risk of the next generation lacking in necessary social skills.

Smartphones are meant to be a supplement to our lives -- but now being "connected" takes over.

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Welcome

    It's almost time for this week's Great Debate. This week it's Matt Baxter-Reynolds vs. Charlie Osborne. Are you ready?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    All set

    I'll be arguing that children are masters of their smartphones.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for Masters

    Ready here

    Sorry Matt, today's children are slaves to their smartphones.

    Charlie Osborne

    I am for Slaves

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Establishing relationships

    Are smartphones and their apps really relationship centric? Or are they enablers to prevent real relationships from forming?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Encourages relationships

    Post-PC devices like smartphones and tablets are the first devices that we as a society have made *specifically for* accessing social networking services and connecting through to the people and things that they love. I am totally convinced that these devices are "relationship-centric."

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for Masters

    A bad connection

    Smartphones and apps do not stop "real" relationships from forming, but can become a substitute for physical alternatives. The connection is where the possibility of addiction lies -- and that applies not only to children but also adults. There can be a sense of panic if you leave your phone at home (what if I miss something important?) as we become accustomed to being wired in to the matrix, and so mobile devices become a necessary communications channel rather than a supplement to make our lives easier.

    In addition, a number of physical relationships now begin based on connections formed through online networks. We may have become addicted to our gadgets and continual access to others, but they can also provide a way to form the core of what may become a physical relationship rather than a barrier to one.  

    Charlie Osborne

    I am for Slaves

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Parental responsibility

    What's the role of parents in ensuring kids don't become gadget addicts?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    It's part of growing up

    This seems to me like a classic parenting issue of "too much of a good thing". That affects everything that kids want to do. Learning how to control desire, handle delayed gratification, etc is just part of growing up and parents are always invovled in that.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for Masters

    Keeping kids safe

    Smartphones and tablets can serve as learning tools, or for some parents, offer a welcome break and keep children occupied for a time. The modern equivalent of a pop-up book or toy with sounds, a tablet can be an interactive tool to help young children learn -- but this should be with parental supervision (as many a parent faced with huge in-app purchase bills can testify). It's about maintaining a balance and teaching children how to use them properly and safely. But for a number of parents, especially those in unsafe areas, giving them computer games or a mobile device is less of a risk than sending them outside without supervision.

    Charlie Osborne

    I am for Slaves

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Face-to-face communications

    How do you think smartphones have affected "old school" communication such as eye contact, having actual conversations in person and winning a debate?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Getting immediate answers

    I think the most significant change is not actually what this question is angling at. The "problem" with smartphones is that people used to debate and discuss a point, but now it's much easier to reach out to the internet and actually find "the answer".

    This puts me in mind in the theme in Douglas Adams's Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy where the Deep Thought supercomputer promises trouble for philosophers by actually providing the answer "to live, the universe, and everything". Debate and challenge is what drives us forward as a society.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for Masters

    It's a crutch

    It is up to us to make sure reliance on technology does not go so far as to place these skills in the back seat. If we give children these products at very young ages, it may be that "old school" communication is going to suffer -- but as the technology is so young, we can say for certain that the next generation are going to be negatively impacted. On the other hand, in the 20-30 age range its not uncommon for people to constantly check their phones when out for a meal or drink with others -- so it's not an impossibility. I'd say that a mobile device does provide escapism in some situations -- whether an awkward first date or a moment of silence in the pub -- and can be used instead of putting in the effort socially.

    Charlie Osborne

    I am for Slaves

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Social outcasts

    Are socialization patterns going to be an issue for children too focused on a screen?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Comfort levels

    This probably comes down to an issue of normalcy. If in a group of children all find the same equal level of comfort in digital relationships, is there actually a problem within that group? I suspect the problems there would come from their relationships with teachers, parents, and other adults.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for Masters

    Teach by doing, not viewing

    They may be. You can only learn so much by watching a screen or pressing buttons -- whereas physical, social skills have to be taught by doing, not viewing. However, screens and visual bombardments are a fixed aspect of life in much of Western society -- whether it be billboards, advertisements, television shows, interactive whiteboards in class or Internet access. It's something children have to grow up with, and as long as parents make sure their children are exposed to social situations, it may not hamper them greatly when it's time to enter the workplace.

    Charlie Osborne

    I am for Slaves

  • Great Debate Moderator

    What's the difference between TV or smartphones?

    Is the smartphone/children debate any different than the TV viewing/children arguments years ago? How so?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Active vs. passive

    I think it superficially looks like the same debate, but it's really not. TV is a passive medium -- a kind of "visual wallpaper for the mind."

    Social networking services only work if there are relationships there that can be keyed into. It's rare that someone would ordinarily post to Facebook et al with the desire to be ignored -- users are always looking to get a reaction of some sort.

    For example, the motivation a joke in real-life (schoolyard/playground) is no different to telling a joke over a digital connection. Both are about sharing.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for Masters

    Smartphones come with social risks

    They are different to an extent. Television viewing is passive, whereas smartphone use is active. As a parent you can keep an eye on what your children are watching, but mobile device use is all about interaction, whether it be texting or the use of social networking applications. Giving children continual, unrestricted access to the Internet and a mobile means of communication comes with not only benefits such as allowing parents to contact their children, but also comes with risks. Children can become embroiled in social network disputes that can affect their schooling, cyberbullying and in some cases, may be groomed over chat rooms -- things that aren't possible just by watching a television.

    Charlie Osborne

    I am for Slaves

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Establishing ground rules

    Should parents limit screen time? Why or why not?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Doesn't matter

    This reiterates the issue of "too much of a good thing" being a bad thing. I'm not sure whether it matters whether it's screen time or chocolate.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for Masters

    Need to act as role models

    If parents are going to consider limiting screen time, perhaps they should consider doing it themselves -- and making sure they are suitable role models. As much as we could also be considered slaves to our smartphones through constantly checking email, being contactable at all times and keeping up to date with our own networks and job, we have indoctrinated our children into the same types of behavior.

    Limiting screen time would have to be extended to television and computer games. If only restricted to smartphones or tablets, it could make children resentful or more secretive about their behavior -- which could cause more harm in the long run.

    Charlie Osborne

    I am for Slaves

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Passive or engaged?

    Do smartphones create a culture of technology consumption over creation? Is that a bad thing?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    It's a myth

    For me, the whole idea of "consumption over creation" is a myth. It seems that a lot of people look at a smartphone or a tablet as a consumption device. This seems to stem from the idea that people look at PCs as inherently *creative*.

    In fact, there is nothing "inherently creative" about a PC. Instead, the PC is good for *focused work*. It's easier to write (for example) a novel on a PC than a smartphone because the device is designed for long periods of intensive focus rather than there being anything special about the software.

    Posting on Tumblr, tweeting along with a TV show, etc are not "not creative". They are very creative because by their very nature they change things. They draw some people closer, push others away -- everyone learns and changes in this environment.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for Masters

    Becoming an addict

    Smartphones, like tablets and hybrid computers, are the products of innovation. They are a natural result of improving and refining products that have to change due to consumer demand and business requirements. I think a pattern of consumption is already ingrained in society -- and corporations cater for this demand. Exposed young, children can end up becoming addicted to their gadget and lost without them, which works well for businesses offering the latest model. A new generation grows up and considers a smartphone a necessity rather than a luxury, and so corporations profit -- and the following group will follow the same pattern (or perhaps by that time we'll all be walking around with Google Glass-esque headsets). 

    Charlie Osborne

    I am for Slaves

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Biggest threat

    What smartphone behaviors would you find most worrisome in a kid?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    No opinion

    I don't have a view on this question.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for Masters

    Addiction

    For a parent, I would suggest that defensive behaviors or secrecy would be a worry. Through social networking and chat applications, it is sometimes the case that children view inappropriate material or make contact with others that could expose them to harm -- and if a child is particularly evasive about their activities this would be a worry. In addition, it can be very difficult to monitor what a child is up to unless parents have access to the mobile device and account passwords, something a number of teenagers would resent.

    As a former teacher, I found a lack of concentration and the immediate jump to a gadget at every opportunity irritating and sometimes a worry in class. Trying to pry little hands away from tiny screens can be nigh on impossible -- and the possessive rage triggered when you confiscated a phone went beyond usual misbehavior in class. The panic and anger that many children show when you take that gadget away shows a level of depedancy that I found concerning as an educator.

    Charlie Osborne

    I am for Slaves

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Role of apps

    How have social networking apps enabled smartphone dependent children?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    It's the purpose of smartphones

    Social networking apps are the *raison d'etre* of smartphones given their relationship-centric app, thus I believe the apps are mostly responsible for enabling smartphone-dependent children.

    But I think it's worth asking in this point, "is a child being smartphone-dependent a problem?" Children always develop dependencies on socializing -- it's part of the human condition. All the smartphone is doing is enabling another way of doing that, one that's often unfamiliar to the parents and other family members.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for Masters

    Security blanket

    Social networking applications and the availability of Wi-Fi allow children to build and extend social networks that are immediate and constant, whether it be tweets or Facebook's news feed. Far from social interaction restricted to the playground or hours before dinner, this generation is suddenly able to communicate instantly with peers -- something previous generations were unable to do. Knowing you can access this network -- as well as meet new people -- with no more effort than tapping a screen required can be an addictive thing.

    As social animals, if a network is taken away from us -- especially as a child -- this is the equivalent of removing a security blanket, so it's no wonder children rely on them and panic if removed. It's not about the content of a social network, but rather knowing that it is accessible and there if you need it.

    Charlie Osborne

    I am for Slaves

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Missing social skills

    I've talked to executives in retail who have indicated they have to spend heavily on training 20-somethings to make eye contact and talk to people directly. He preferred to hire older workers when interpersonal service and conversation was needed because of training costs. What are the workplace issues that can arise from a generation too tethered to smartphones?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Too early to tell

    So this is a common phenomenon, but I would say it's likely too recent to have been caused by smartphones. Someone who's 21 at the earliest started using a smartphone when they were 16. At this point, whatever "damage" would have been done prior to smartphones specifically.

    There is some thought that the internet changes the way that we think. Changing cognition will likely change social interaction, so I suspect any problems that we're seeing with this new "Millennial generation" has older roots.

    But, the smartphone is not going to make that any better if it is having an effect.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for Masters

    A socially inept generation

    Although being familiar with technology such as smartphones and tablets -- devices that are becoming integrated and common in modern Western society -- can be a useful addition when entering the workplace, it is possible that becoming equipped with them at an early age is impacting the learning of social skills. We have to keep in mind that age brings experience not only in social scenes but also the workplace -- if you're able to secure work these days -- but if we are beginning to see a correlation between gadget use, age and a resultant lack of social skills, then we may be raising a generation that is socially inept.

    We're meant to teach children skills that modern society needs, and understanding technology is part of this. But perhaps our own reliance on technology and giving children mobile devices too soon because of it is doing them a disservice by removing opportunities to learn how to interact in the physical world before the digital.

    Charlie Osborne

    I am for Slaves

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Thank you

    We've seen two totally opposite views which should make picking a winner easy. But it won't. Take some time to read the talkbacks, add your opinion, and vote. Final arguments from the debaters will be posted on Wednesday and my verdict will be delivered on Thursday.

    Thanks to Matt and Charlie, and thanks to you for joining in.

    Posted by Larry Dignan

Closing Statements

Every generation changes the society

Matt Baxter-Reynolds

In her opening arguments, my esteemed opponent mentioned that the "next generation [may lack] necessary social skills." It could be that skills within digital relationships in the future end up being as important or more important than the sorts of real-life relationships that we generally have today.

Charlie raises some fantastic points in her rebuttal, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to debate this topic with her. We just don't know how society is going to change, and we've never known that throughout all of human history.

But we do know that every young generation -- whether the current lot, those who grew up in the 1960s, or who grew up in the 1860s -- they always change the society that they grow up in. If nothing else, we need to understand that change. One of the challenges is that this change, becauses it is technological in nature, will be very fast.

The problem with smartphone dependency

Charlie Osborne

Children are slaves to mobile technology due to the social network and connections such devices offer.

As social creatures, being without support networks is a painful thing -- especially for children as they grow up. If you hand a mobile device to a child and extend this network, then removing it can cause elements of panic or rage as you are cutting away at this support. Whether in the classroom, at home or on a family outing, having given a child a smartphone at an early age, you can't expect them to surrender devices without a fight.

Problems associated with smartphone dependency will likely come to the front as new generations grow up with this technology. For now, however, as a former teacher I believe they can contribute to a lack of concentration and social awareness; although possible to remedy, these are afflictions that we have put in place by giving the younger generation such technology at earlier and earlier stages.

Charlie gets the win

Larry Dignan

The winner of this debate hands down went to Charlie Osborne. Matt Baxter-Reynolds had a case to make, but just didn't make it with his answers. However, Matt's performance wasn't nearly as bad as the crowd vote suggests. Although it pains me to go with the crowd, Charlie gets the win. Now I'm going back to my smartphone and 140 character brain farts. 

Topics: Great Debate

About

Larry Dignan is Editor in Chief of ZDNet and SmartPlanet as well as Editorial Director of ZDNet's sister site TechRepublic. He was most recently Executive Editor of News and Blogs at ZDNet. Prior to that he was executive news editor at eWeek and news editor at Baseline. He also served as the East Coast news editor and finance editor at CN... Full Bio

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