Your children are slaves to their smartphones

Your children are slaves to their smartphones

Summary: Today's teens and pre-teens are overly reliant on technology, lazy, self-entitled, and are the worst read of any generation.


Today, my ZDNet colleague James Kendrick wrote a piece named "The Smartphonifcation of today's youth".

In it, he discusses why today's children are <cough> "the most advanced" of any generation before it, and how they will grow up with constant information at their fingertips, because they will have always known the ubiquitous smartphone and the trappings of other related mobile technologies such as tablets and high-speed wireless broadband.

(Image: CBS Interactive)

While James is correct that this generation of children has unprecedented access to technology, I think portraying them as the "most advanced" is looking at today's kids through rose-colored glasses.

Indeed, today's teenagers and pre-teens have smartphones and tablets, they have their choice of "social" networks and apps that plug into them, like Instagram, Vine, and Pinterest, they have texting, all forms of instant messaging, and their choice of search engines and intelligent agents such as Google Now and Siri to spoon feed them any information they want.

But more advanced? Give me a freaking break.

If anything, today's privileged teens (and I italicise privileged because not all teens who live in North America have smartphones with data plans, nor do most in many other countries) are far too reliant on their mobile technology, and most would have no idea what to do with themselves if they were to be parted from it.

Smartphones and tablets are a drug that they cannot easily be weaned off.

If you don't believe me, see what happens when you go on vacation to some spot that has little or no Wi-Fi or 3G/4G connectivity, or where it's so prohibitively expensive that parents who bring their teens along decide not to purchase that connectivity for them.

It's like witnessing a mass withdrawal scene out of a 1970s methadone clinic. Or watching one of those Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes when the Borg drones become severed from their communications link to the Collective.

I got to see all of this first-hand back in December 2012, when my wife and I went on a seven-night Caribbean cruise on the NCL Epic.

This massive vessel, which can accommodate over 4,000 passengers, had hundreds of families on board, many with teenage and pre-teen children, who brought their smartphones, hoping they would still be able to text and access their usual social networks and apps and whatnot.

The Epic, in fact, like most modern cruise ships, does have Wi-Fi and internet access, but it is so prohibitively expensive that most families chose not to pay for it.

So what did these kids do? Well, the ship did have entertainment options — it had a club for kids that includes their own disco and video-game arcade, a giant water park, as well as activities specifically geared for teens and pre-teens.

But more often than not, I found many teens and pre-teens lying around deck and looking bored out of their minds.

Frankly, if there wasn't an ample supply of consumable alcohol, and if they weren't engaged in other (ahem) activities in their respective cabins, most twenty-somethings would have also been bored out of their minds, because they have all the exact same trappings of today's teenagers and pre-teens, having grown up as the Barney the Dinosaur generation.

The Dora and Blues Clues generation that followed aren't fundamentally different in their basic ideologies of extreme self-love, self-worth, and self-entitlement.

I consider them to be more like Shia Barneyism.

Now, don't get me wrong; I'm in my mid-40s, but I also love my gadgets. I own far more smartphones and tablets and laptops and computers than the average person does, because I write about technology. I am a technologist. I drink technology like mother's milk.

And if you mess with Fred Rogers, Big Bird, Snuffy, and Cookie Monster, I will bust a cap in your ass.

But guess what: When I go on vacation, do you know what I like to do more than anything else? I like to veg out. Hand me an ice-cold bucket of Blue Moons or Presidentes, give me a hefty paperback book, and throw my big fat ass in a jacuzzi. Mix up with going to out eat. Repeat as necessary.

Now, interspersed between this beer drinking, eating, and reading (oh, yes, the reading) is this thing called basic human interaction. You know, talking to people. It's much cruder than say, TCP/IP or web services APIs, or texting, but it gets the job done.

Using tablets, mobile devices and video games as a source of parental relief is going to have many unintended and undesirable consequences.

Observing the behavior of others when they are on vacation is a particularly interesting sociological exercise, because I have found it is a very good indicator of what people are like when they are not on vacation, and how their real personalities tend to manifest themselves.

If anything, it amplifies their personality because they they attempt to assert themselves in unfamiliar environments.

All this being said, I cannot entirely blame this generation's over-dependence on technology strictly on themselves. The balance of this weighs on the parents.

Yup. You heard me. You. All the things that drive you crazy about your children are your fault.

By the way, I have no kids. This is out of personal choice, and because I know my kids would probably be the most spoiled brats to walk this earth, and I'd very likely be an absolute tyrant of a father knowing my own personality characteristics.

While I do a lot less of it than I used to when I worked at IBM, I still do my fair share of business travel, and a lot of that happens on airplanes. Many of the flights I take are three or four hours, sometimes as much as six if I'm visiting the Redmond mothership.

And there are always young children on these flights, and in airports during multi-hour layovers. And they are cranky. They misbehave. They frequently don't listen to their parents when told to calm down.

To placate them and to keep them from becoming entirely disruptive to other passengers and travellers, more often than not I have seen a parent use an iPad or another tablet or other mobile device as a substitute babysitter so the parent can get some sleep or time away from the child.

Now, I don't know if it's because this generation of kids is particularly hyperactive, or that we have more than our share of autism spectrum disorders due to unknown environmental factors, and/or the current generation of kids are just plain spoiled rotten, but I have to think that using tablet, mobile devices, and video games as a source of parental relief is going to have many unintended and undesirable consequences.

It's interesting when you see what kids do with tablets versus what adults do with them, particularly on planes. Kids like to play games. Parents and business travellers like to watch movies, browse the web, and read books.

Rarely have I seen a teenager or a pre-teen pick up a tablet on a plane and read a book. More often than not, the ones with the Kindles are college students.

So indeed, today's children are more "advanced", if we agree they are the first generation to embrace the Version 1.0 David Gelernter "Lifestream", which I believe is quickly turning our society into one dominated by attention-deficient nitwits.

I'm certainly not suggesting that we take smartphones and tablets away from our kids. If anything, the smartphone has given the modern parent a better communications and location mechanism than any generation of parents have had before, giving them increased peace of mind.

But we have to remember that smartphones and tablets and other forms of digital interaction are no replacement for real human interaction, as well as traditional forms of learning.

And if we continue to become "advanced" as Kendrick posits, all we will be is a bunch of unlearned and uncultured automatons that are socially backward in all manner of social interaction by comparison to their "inferior" technologically deprived forbears, who read avidly, who conversed face to face, and appreciated the simpler things in life.

Are today's children really more "advanced" with access to today's mobile technology, or is it also retarding their developmental and social skills? Talk back and let me know.

Topics: Mobility, Smartphones, Tablets


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • I have kids

    5 to be accurate, 3 grown up 1 a tweenie (12 ) and one 7. Totally agree with you, except my kids don't get spoilt in the tech area, I refuse to give into dodgy logic! We have a debate going on in Australia about sexting, usally done by 14 to 18 years old and bulling online again about the same age group!

    My kids won't have much of a problem there as they won't get mobiles and the PC's are set-up in the family area so we can police them. Sure they have access to the internet but we control when they go on and in summer we go swimming, canoing and such and because we don't let the kids rely on the tech they still enjoy those outside activities.

    Not to mention both daughters living at home are involved with scouts and the youngest does Auskick (Aussie rules football the only REAL football game 8-) ) It's all about being a good parent, do what's right for your kid's, not what make you popular!
    • 12 kids...

      So I understand. My autistic son has an iPad1 that is crucial to his learning *and* his behaving. But I do my best to let the other kids in on a little secret that true social networking involves no more than the ringing of a doorbell. The only smart phones in my house are owned by the three adult children and my wife and me. The teens have a couple dumb phones. Everyone else is out of luck.

      As I am having to travel to a daughter's wedding soon, my wife and I decided to leave all but the autistic son behind. Flying with that many kids, even if I had the money, is not something you want me to do. And driving 14 hours in two vehicles? Uh, no. Our adult son and the in-laws will do a nice job for a weekend, thank you very much.

      Bottom line? Yes, parents are responsible for introducing their children to the age-honored concept of reading, even if it's on an iPad or Kindle Fire. Open their minds and make them excel.
    • well done

      My wife and I made the grave mistake of allowing our 10 and 12 year olds to get cell phones. They are now 18 and 15 and it's been a brutal 5 year mission. It's comparable to the Enterprises 5 year mission...imagine them fighting Klingons and Romulans every day.

      My next wave of kids are 11 and 9. They've asked for phones but we put our foot down. No phones until they are 15. With great power comes great responsibility and most kids don't have it. There's a reason why children aren't allowed to get a job until 15 or 16 in most states...responsibility. It amazes me to see little 8 and 9 year olds running around with smart phones. Is it the parent way of babysitting? If that's the case you shouldn't have kids. Maybe you should spend a little more time with them. Is a constant connection to their friends necessary? Probably not. It might even cut down on bullys if kids aren't connected to them 24 hours a day instead of the 7Hrs they have to face them at school.
      • My Brother-In-Law bought my nephew a post-paid phone 2 year ago

        He was 11. He ran up a $300 phone bill the first month watching VCast. It was taken away at that point (but they still had the contract.) Then, 2 years later, he got an iPhone (I have no reason why.) and it has been a source of issue. Fights, disagreements, playing to many games, massive porn issues...

        I finally showed them how to wire off all the features of the phone with parental controls so he can use it to text, photos and play a few games and even that is a serious distraction.
    • Best of luck

      Over protect your offspring and they grow up without the backbone to make important infomed personal decisions by themselves. You can only protect them so much without smothering them.
      Raised 4, have always had a tech-centric family; pc's for all, as they grew phones for all, etc...
      I took the time to teach, to let them explore, to let them learn and they turned out pretty damn good.
      btw: one of these is a special child and a tablet and basic smartphone has helped her so much in keeping her life on track.
      • Seem's you didn't read my post properly!

        We are very tech centric, our main living area has got 2 desktops and 1 laptop setup on desk's all the time. Some times anther laptop is running as well. I love using good quotes and here another for you
        "Everything in moderation, including moderation."
        We have full on gaming days, kids use the laptops and desktops for play and school but it's all about balance, check out this facebook page:
        I live overlooking that, why would I be silly enough to allow my kids to stop seeing the world? Not sure if you know what scouts do but there is more chance of them getting hurt there than sitting in front of a screen all day! Not to mention Aussie rule's, fairly safe for young kids but if they go on even the woman's games are pretty rough and unlike Gridiron they don't wear padding! lol
        But sorry when it comes to smartphones, not a chance in hell will they get them until they can afford to buy there own!.

        To finish with another quote (Which may have already been used lol)
        "With great power comes great responsibility"
  • He's a drummer...

    'nuff said.
  • Users

    the problem is, they are users of technology. When I was growing up, in order to "use" technology, we had to first master it. We had to learn how to program a computer, in order to "use" it.

    I could afford a new game for the computer about twice a year, until Code Masters came along with their cheap games. Therefore I had to resort to writing my own games and applications.

    As to reliance on mobile devices, our kids (well, my fiance's kids), the eldest bought her first smartphone a couple of weeks ago (Windows Phone 7.5), but doesn't really use the smart side of it. She texts a lot. But she also thinks Facebook is evil and won't have anything to do with it.

    The younger daughter moved into her first flat in March and had to go 6 weeks without phone or internet. She had a smartphone, but no data allowance and poor reception where the flat is. When she came back home for school (she is doing an apprenticeship and has 2 days school each week and our house is more convinient than her flat), the would lock herself away in her old room and spend all of her time on Facebook.
  • bang bang bang

    oh good grief.
    You have a drum, and you're gonna beat it. Reguardless of what the current music is.

    Morals, and internal character are the responsability of PARENTS, not "education".
    Perlow is complaining about character. As a result of poor upbringing.
    Technology itself does not guarantee a particular bad character result. The result is dependant on how a person is raised to interact with it. Primarily how often to use it, and what attitude to have towards it.
    Phil Brown
    • My opinion, too.

      People like Perlow are going on about how each generation of youth are increasingly lazy and self-entitled. The reason this is happening is because their parents were lazy and self-entitled in their parenting. They bought their children a plethora of technological distractions to keep them busy. The parents spoiled the kids with high-ticket toys in order to buy more free time to play with their own high-ticket toys. Many of those who brag about not buying their kids smartphones have given their kids TVs, XBoxes, Playstations, laptops, handheld gaming devices, and much more. Simply put, our techno-zombie youth are the direct result of absentee parenting.

      What frightens me most about this past couple of generations is the fact that they are completely dependent upon technology. They don't even have the basic skills needed to survive without technology. They have a narrow range of knowledge because they depend on technology to answer all of their questions. If the power grid goes down, they'll all die. A super-sized coronal mass ejection could easily wipe out those generations simply by killing the technology they depend on to survive.
      • add on corporate America

        Do not forget that a lot of the problem is also coming from corporations using persuasive marketing techniques (mostly aimed at the younger generation) to convince them that they need the latest gadget - and now, not later. Then the peer pressure sets in with every teen and preteen needing what everyone else wants (and that's were the parents fail when they give in too easily).
        I don't see why anyone below the legal driving age needs a phone. (Why that age? A phone is invaluable when driving in case of an emergency - not for conversations).
        Unfortunately the excessive fear mongering in this country has caused that problem. People that never lived in a big urban area are not street-wise and fear everything. Suburban, well-to-do parents hover over their children and want to know their every move. I was a child in the 50's and would go off with friend to play for hours at a time. My mother couldn't track me and didn't feel the need to have to do so. Life had plenty of dangers back then and we all learned about it at a young age and adapted. The dangers haven't increased, everyone just talks about it more.
        And then the lack of public pay phones has not helped. I remember when you could find a phone within easy walking distance. Try to find one now. Even the airports have less of them.
        And I will agree with what would happen if a massive failure of our technological infrastructure occurred. I have talked about that for years, pointing out to people that if all magnetic devices suddenly failed (computers, chips, tapes, hardrives, etc.) we would be stepping back into the 19th century. Only pre computerized cars would work. All our utilities would come to a halt, computer control it all. Instant communication would cease. Entertainment would have to be live. People would have to communicate face to face. Only those that grew up in the pre-computer era or those that have developed their survival skills would be able to adapt.
        • dangers and the perception thereof

          As a 40-something I also grew up in an era when it was impossible for parents to keep such a close eye on their kids, and here I am still alive; from that I try to accept that it's okay to not keep my kids on a leash.

          The modern parental paranoia seems to me to be caused largely by the prevalence of media fanning the flames with sensational stories about scary crimes ... I think the problem is that while there may be some small number of crimes a year in one's locale, the news is shoving the images of the worst crimes from all over the US (if not the whole world even) in your face every hour of every day. Used to be you got your news in the morning in the paper and in the evening on the tv. Now it's everywhere in your face all the time (internet, smartfone apps, tv's everywhere you go, 24-hour news cycle). You can't escape it in modern America, and frankly I think that a sizeable minority --if not actual majority-- of Americans are honestly too stupid to understand that there is not any greater danger or threat to their kids' safety.
          Gravyboat McGee
          • So true!

            It's a bit like the "Stranger Danger" scare, most kids are not assaulted by strangers! In fact that's pretty rare!
          • Here, here!

            As I've always said, the bad things you see and hear about have always been going on, and probably more so in the past than now. The only difference now is that anytime something bad happens now, it's instantly on your screen and in your face.
  • Current teens are not slaves

    Current teens are not slaves, they are simply lazy!.
    • Maybe

      Indentured servants would be more appropriate! Some will be masters of the technology and use it powerfully. But, unfortunately many are hobbled by it, they will never know how to learn, create or think for themselves. But, I guess that's not new, just packaged differently.
  • It's not just the kids ...

    I was at a family gathering six months ago. We were all sitting around a backyard fireplace. All of the kids who had a cell phone were sending texts; the adults were taking pictures and posting them immediately on Facebook. I had just acquired my new Galaxy S3 and was reveling in my first smartphone, so I was doing the same. I think I even too a photo of everyone with that weird glow on their faces.

    Walk into a restaurant or Starbucks and you'll see plenty of adults hammering away on their smartphone keyboards, usually while sitting at the same table. It's been that way for a long time, ever since Blackberry phones/PDAs came into vogue. (How many stories have you read that called them "Crackberries?")

    The kids have just found more creative ways to use the new technology. My 7-year-old is already fairly good at finding her way around the iPad; we had to turn off the YouTube app (before iOS 6) because she had discovered some of the more salacious versions of kids cartoons that get posted on there. She didn't realize what they were, but I was rather horrified to walk by and hear the dialogue.

    When they get old enough to need to use the computer for things besides Disney games, you can bet that it will be right in the middle of the living room, and I will be paying attention. I expect that they will try to (and succeed, in some cases) to get around me, but I'll be doing my best to keep up.
  • He is right

    While there are exceptions (there always are) the author is spot on. I have three kids, and they are all very bright and good students. However, without the internet and/or screen in front of them they are lost. When they reach their alloted time limit with a device, they mope around. We have to force them to get outside and play something for real.

    In the end, I accept that this is my wife and I's fault. We should have been less generous with allowing the kids to use our smartphones, PCs and tablets. Its just so damn easy. However, there is a price to pay for that convenience.

    Get mad, call Perlow names, but it doesn't change that he is correct about this issue.
    • You just identified part of the problem

      you measure success by academic achievement, and not character. Your kids are not beyond redemption, but it will take a bit of work. What you need to do is get them out of themselves. Volunteer work is the best way to do that. Go serve meals at a homeless shelter once a month. Go talk to a local pastor about people in need in the area and see what you can do for them. Bake cookies as a family and go take them to someone you don't know in your neighborhood.

      They will gripe and complain the first couple of times. Then they will love it.
      • Go serve meals at a homeless shelter once a month?

        Is that some kind of catch phrase regarding charity? Talk about ignorance. All but a very few of those homeless people deserve to be homeless. Think about it. If my home were taken by a tornado, and I needed a place to stay, I can think of alot of friends and family that I could stay with. You probably could too. Now think about what it would take for you not to allow someone else else not to stay with you for a week or two. There's a very good reason these homeless people don't have anyone or any place to go.

        And I basically agree with the guy that wrote this piece about spoiled children; but with a logical caveat. Just because people indulge in alcohol does not mean they will become alcoholics. But everyone who is an alcoholic started out indulging in alcohol.