Are we giving our kids Stockholm smartphone syndrome?

The necessities of life: food, sleep, sex, smartphones?


You're prepared, lesson in the bag, shoulders back and ready to impart priceless knowledge to a group of eager young scholars — and hopefully impress the school inspector if they happen to be lurking.

There's no paper aeroplanes or flying chalk. Hey, not even raucous laughter as children graffiti the classroom board. Instead, you're met with heads tilted at 45-degree angles, gazes absorbed in the latest YouTube cat video or whine on Facebook about breakfast or, god forbid, what Justin Beiber's been up to.

After a round of threats to confiscate gadgets, students surly, the teacher begins. Turn back to the whiteboard, and the familiar buzz of a smartphone goes off yet again. For the love of... 

You don't fight against physical distractions anymore as a teacher; instead you combat the digital — and with the wealth of information and entertainment available, mere mortals stand no chance unless we physically pry the smartphone out of a child's fingers and brace ourselves to endure the torrent of rage and anxiety afterwards.

Stockholm smartphone syndrome, anyone?

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At ZDNet, we've run a series based on the relationship between today's youth and mobile technology. My colleague James Kendrick argues that thanks to the shiny rectangles taking up space in our pockets, the new generation is "the most advanced generation in the history of mankind." 

As a former teacher, I don't see it. Children are not the most advanced — they're the most distracted. Furthermore, they are liable to become the most idiotic and lacking in social skills as their eyes are turned away from learning about their environment, instead commenting on their friend's latest duck-pout profile picture on Facebook. 

Yes, the information available online is incredible. But when I set a student a research project, I don't want Google involved. I want them to learn how to use their cognitive faculties in research, not how to skim, copy and paste from Wikipedia. 

When we talk about technology-dependent children who are "advanced," you have to consider in what way.

Understanding how to use technology which is so firmly ingrained in Western culture is a must, sure. I've argued in the past that children should be given the option to learn how to code, as it's up to education to evolve in order to suit our changing economic and cultural needs. 

Tech skills can give a student better job opportunities, an understanding of how to protect themselves online, and we need to teach kids why these things are important — not just how they are completed. However, advancement doesn't mean simply having access to Google, it's about the thinking process, rational skills, research and being well-read. Spoon feeding to pass exams has never cut it, nor does simply giving a child a phone and believing they will be the better for learning how to use a search engine, text or subsequently anger a teacher who is trying to engage them in a task. 

Being considered advanced can only be achieved if you have the memory capacity, rationale and concentration span to cope with information, to process, and to justify an argument or opinion — all things we are destroying by glueing children to screens at a young age. 

Jason Perlow wrote a follow-up piece called " Your children are slaves to their smartphones " in response to Kendrick's assertions, and argues that children become drooling husks of their former selves — aka zombies — without their precious gadgets. 

On a seven-night Caribbean cruise on the NCL Epic, Perlow observed a bored, sober populace of teens who, far from considering actually reading things printed on paper or engaging in conversation, appeared lost and alone without wireless connectivity. Having been given my first Nokia brick at the tender age of eleven, I struggle to put down my phone these days while eating in a restaurant or while out in the pub.

The reason I haven't changed my pathetic Three network phone in two years? I secretely quite like the fact I am forced to disconnect in the local due to the non-existence of signal in any brick-and-mortar building.

Whether a smartphone or camera, I feel better with a gadget in my hand — even more so if it's web-connected. My father proposes a cruise, and my immediate, instinctive thought is panic at the thought of lacking email.

But what if I miss something important?

I understand those teenagers on holiday. It's sad, pathetic, even. But the habit of being equipped with a gadget from such a young age and enjoying the digital connection to people around us is a hard one to break. 

Moving on, Matt Baxter-Reynolds chipped in with a piece called " Kids without their smartphones are zombies. And that's a good thing! " Touching upon the psychology of our need to hold smartphones close to our hearts, my colleague discusses the inherent social need of humans to be connected:

"Throughout all of human history, developing that social network has required physical manual interaction — as Jason says, "you know, talking to people." What smartphones do through their pervasive connectedness is allow the development of our social network to be done both in a digital realm and in a real-life realm as if they were the same thing."

Although I agree that we need our social networks — in physical or digital form — to feel connected to other members of our species, the two realms are not the same. Considering our basic needs (the social, food and sex), Baxter-Reynolds says:

"Getting a dirty text message from someone you fancy provokes the same physiological response as if the person had whispered the same words in your ear."

Not quite. A beeping phone and breath on my neck do not provoke the same reaction, thank you. (The day it does is the day my smartphone goes out of the window.) Believe it or not, we can do without the Internet, but we can't do without physical interaction.

It's not to say iPads are going to eventually transform us all into asexual beings, but by believing tech can fill in all these social gaps, we are doing the next generation a disservice. 

By giving children access to such technology at an early age, we make our children captivated by the shiny lure of a smartphone, and potentially anxious without possessing one. Recently, ABC conducted research that found that children could operate an iPad before they could speak, and would often choose the slab over the mother. 

We can't know just how much technological exposure is impacting the mental and physical development of children, but these surely stand as warning signs — and there is nothing "advanced" about stripping social interaction out of our children's education and replacing it with inherent technological knowledge.

Ask any teacher in the country who has had to combat the constant whine of students lacking their mobile gadgets, and yet who cannot perform basic sums without a calculator. Times have certainly changed since Plato and oral tradition. 

We give our three-year-old a tablet so we can snatch a breather, and yes, they are learning how to use technology, but technology is addictive. The ability to connect is addictive. We indoctrinate our children, and we are responsible for Stockholm smartphone syndrome — the belief that smartphones are a necessity of life and just as important as physical interaction. 

Image Source: Andrew Malone