Commentary: Smartphones? They’re so very 2022
Gen Z’s teens are learning to self-moderate their screen time, says the Financial Times' Jo Ellison.
LONDON: This week, in a shock announcement, my daughter deleted TikTok from her phone. After some consideration she had decided the app is “a total waste of life”.
The decision wasn’t prompted by anything, so far as I can tell, although it may have been an inevitable resolution in a month in which we try to self-improve. It was also being adopted by others in her peer group who felt similarly bound to their phones: Collectively, they were renouncing the social media platform - its dance duets, its memes, its infinite, addictive scroll.
That they should have decided to break up with social media in the depths of winter seemed a little cavalier: Surely there is no better thing to do in January than lie in bed and watch strangers talk you through the contents of their fridge?
But, enough! She had decided. It was time to call it off. TikTok had possessed her life for too long, she wanted to liberate herself.
Given how obsessed we tend to be about our children’s screen time, I will be curious to see what happens next. This generation of teenagers is the first batch of digital natives who have been exposed to smartphones since the womb.
As a result, I’m quite sure her phone use has been in keeping with that of the average child: According to a survey by the United States non-profit Common Sense Media, daily screen use among US tweens averages five hours and 33 minutes, while teenagers log a stunning average of eight hours and 39 minutes.
Unsurprisingly, the numbers increased during lockdown when children, stuck at home, developed an even greater dependence on their phones.
Maybe, instead of hovering over our children and obsessing, we should counter the possibility that Gen Z are more digitally evolved.
My daughter, who is white, female and part of a higher-income household, was already likely to spend less time on her phone. But she still seemed to me as addicted as any other child.
Mostly, I’ve allowed her at it: As someone who had their screen time strictly monitored in childhood (two hours of television every week, no soaps or “commercial” television, and provision of a planned viewing schedule indicated via a marked-up copy of Radio Times magazine), I’ve tended to err towards a non-intervention path. I still binge-watch for hours if left unsupervised and have a screen-time habit that would make my mother weep.
I’ve tried not to instil too many caveats about my daughter’s viewing habits. I’m too lazy to fight about whether the Disney channel is the brain-rotting garbage that it clearly is. She got her first smartphone when she was old enough to do the school run solo, and since then I’ve been pretty laissez-faire.
I screen her downloads, if only because I’m paying for them, but I’ve long since given up placing boundaries on her screen time. Mostly, I’m grateful the smartphone was invented: During lockdown I thanked God she could communicate so easily with friends.
Perhaps the social media purge is a corollary of that period of phone dependence. An acknowledgment that the real world - unchecked, unshared, unsupervised - might actually be more fun.
And although getting rid of TikTok is only the tiniest of gestures - like the children in the survey, she’s still hot-wired to YouTube and Snapchat - I sense the smartphone is something with which young people are slowly falling out of love.
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REJECTION OF THE SMARTPHONE
Members of the teenage Luddite Club, featured in the New York Times last month, have pledged to do away with social media. Founded by a New York high-school student, Logan Lane, these Brooklyn-based techno refuseniks meet at the same time weekly and head to Prospect Park to read, paint, talk politics and hang out IRL.
Many have switched their smartphones for more basic flip phones. Others have eschewed phone ownership altogether.
Its members claim to have experienced a Damascene awakening: They are reading Dostoevsky, they are talking to their parents, they are learning to observe. Interestingly, it has been the parents who have been most thrown by their decision, the umbilical cord having been severed late. Used to having their child in constant contact, they no longer know exactly where they are.
When I first read about the group, I felt a bristling irritation at such annoying teen precocity, but that soon softened to grudging respect. At a time when the world is fully at our fingertips, the rejection of the smartphone is a radically countercultural move.
It offers hope also that members of this brain-addled, phone-stupefied young generation might in fact be able to self-regulate their smartphone use.
Maybe, instead of hovering over our children and obsessing, we should counter the possibility that Gen Z are more digitally evolved. Having been on social media for ever, they might have a healthier relationship than we do with our phones.
More importantly, as my daughter levelled at me: would I be deleting TikTok too? Are you kidding, I answered, as I scrolled through a fresh batch of Cate Blanchett content. I work hard to waste my life.