Your children are slaves to their smartphones

Today's teens and pre-teens are overly reliant on technology, lazy, self-entitled, and are the worst read of any generation.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

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.

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