Kids without their smartphones are zombies. And that's a good thing!

Take a smartphone away from a teenager and they fall apart. But being dependent on always having access to your social network is no bad thing...
Written by Matt Baxter-Reynolds, Contributor
Teens on Smartphones
It may not look like these two lads are being deeply social, but they *so* are.

This week, two of my favourite ZDNet colleagues have written articles about kids and their smartphones.

James Kendrick wrote a piece called "The smartphonification of today's youth" in which he talks about how today's generation of kids are destined to be the most advanced generation that humanity has known thanks to near-constant access to the totality of human knowledge and their peers through their smartphones.

This is a good thing. Totally.

Jason Perlow wrote a follow-up piece called "Your children are slaves to their smartphones," in which he argues that kids today end up in an almost zombie-like state if their smartphones are taken away.

So, wait. There's dependency here? Kids are dependent on having this technology. How can this be good?!

Both of these pieces juxtaposed are fascinating because they are both right. Who wouldn't want a global society where all its citizens are always informed and always connected (James). But what happens when the technology stack that we use to do that isn't pervasive enough to support what's almost a new species's (homo continuus?) needs in order to actually cope with their day-to-day lives (Jason).

Half a brain

Jason's piece discusses a observations from a cruise holiday that he recently took where he observed that without their beloved connectivity, a good number of the pre-teens and teens were wandering around in an almost zombie-like state, listless and broken because they didn't have access to their smartphones.

In fact, I suspect that most of those kids (and I guess young adults) did have access to their smartphones. They just didn't have any connectivity, therefore no way of connecting into their social network, therefore they were useless lumps of plastic.

Jason hits on a point that often comes up in this sociological argument when he says:

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 out to 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.

My emphasis on that last sentence. We'll get to that.

People who look at our industry rarely ask the question "why do smartphones sell in such astonishing numbers?" They are way, way beyond a "want" and are totally lodged in a place in our brains where they become a basic psychological need. In order for anything to become a need, it has to tie into stuff within us that's anthropologically significant, that has come from our evolution, and that is 50,000 years old.

In this case, what smartphones are tying into is our deep, basic, evolved need to be social. Humans cannot cope without social interaction.

Something's wrong here then — why would kids without a smartphone zombie around on a boat deliberately not being social if that's an anthropological need? Simple: something must be broken.

We all have a "social network," and I'm not talking about data in a social networking service — I'm talking about the pattern we keep in our head that describes who is and who has been important to us. The process of developing this network starts the moment we're born through parental bonding and continues all the way up, connecting to the nurses and doctors that look after us when we're on our death beds.

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.


What's happening now in particular at this moment in development of human society is that we are building technologies that level the difference between real-life and digital relationships — i.e. experientially to people engaged and committed to being social through digital technologies, there is notionally no difference between what they experience through a smartphone/tablet/PC and what they experience in real-life.

It's only when we dig into another baseline anthropological need — sex — that we start to find an experiential difference that doesn't come up to snuff in this way. Although why do you think sexting works, and why do you think phone sex worked before that? 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. The human mind is superb at filling in missing gaps, which is how this leveling between real-life and digital relationships is possible.

People often complain to me about their kids sitting around the house all weekend on their computer rather than going out with their friends playing and being social. Well, duh, they are being social. They're just doing it in their digital realm, not their real-life realm. You as a parent don't have that direct experience and don't see how it works differently for them. It doesn't mean it's any less satisfying.

What Jason's seeing on the boat is young people who have a social network which is permanently wired across real-life and digital realms, yet have had more than half, probably 80 percent, of that network lopped up by being lumbered on a cruise ship with mum and dad, or whatever configuration of family members happens to be with them.

No wonder they're miserable!

But to come back to my first point, both of my colleagues are right. James's piece points to a wonderful society where everyone (governments and economic considerations obliging) can become empowered and enlightened through constant connectivity and access.

Jason's piece, though — it points to a problem. That generation he's citing is psychologically dependent on constant access into its digital network, but society can't do that for them. Yet. That boat didn't have internet access for a reason. We still can't do pervasive internet cheaply enough everywhere where humans are.

But we'll get there. Then we'll really see something.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Image credit: CBS Interactive 

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