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EuphoriaCourtesy HBO

In attack of phones

It’s becoming more and more obvious that smartphones are causing us all serious problems – but why do we find it so hard to accept that?

Sometimes, when puffing on an Elf bar and pinging through different apps in search of a dopamine hit, I feel like a chimpanzee trapped inside some sick laboratory experiment. If I’m able to make it through an episode of a TV show without glancing at my phone, it feels like a triumph of zen-like self-discipline, like doing an hour of meditation. So it never comes as a surprise when new research suggests that smartphone usage is wrecking our concentration and mental health. By now, there is a solid body of evidence that supports this view (although some studies are less conclusive than others) and most people seem to recognise it carries a degree of truth; this includes social media companies themselves, as a leaked Instagram report in 2021 made clear.

The debate around smartphones was reignited back in February when fresh research by the Centre for Disease Controls and Prevention showed a dramatic decline in the wellbeing of American teenagers. Within the last decade, there has been an overall increase in young people experiencing “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness”. This is true across the board, regardless of race and gender, but the problem is especially stark when it comes to girls and LGBTQ+ students – overlapping groups that are significantly more likely to consider or attempt suicide. In light of these demographic disparities, it might seem bizarre to conclude that the blame lies with smartphones (which aren’t even mentioned in the report), rather than sexual violence, discrimination and bullying. But there is also a clear correlation: rates of depression, loneliness, self-harm and suicide among American youth first began to increase in 2012 – the first year that the majority of the US population owned a smartphone and the point at which usage among teenagers became ubiquitous. This research focused on America specifically, but similar trends are apparent in Britain and elsewhere.

Middle-aged conservatives commentators, in particular, have embraced this report as definitive proof that phones are the biggest issue facing young people today. It’s a convenient explanation for them, one which exonerates their worldview. Instead of having to consider the role played by gun violence, the climate crisis or misogyny, they can simply blame young people for their own unhappiness – and, where TikTok is concerned, take a pop at a geo-political rival in the process. At the more extreme end, some conservatives believe that social media is brainwashing teens into becoming transgender or embracing radical politics, and they're moving to restrict it on that basis. The smartphone hypothesis is often a form of denialism; a way of insisting that, contrary to appearances, capitalism is working out just great, and that the social problems you claim to care about would melt away – if only you would get off that damn phone!!

Understandably, this idea provoked a backlash on TikTok and Twitter, where people reeled off alternative explanations for the crisis in teen mental health: the experience of living through a pandemic, police harassment, climate anxiety, the rise of fascism, the privatisation of public spaces, the increased expense of socialising, and a feeling of hopelessness that is both pervasive and not entirely unfounded. These are all legitimate points, particularly in the US – where gun violence is now the leading cause of death among children. But that’s not to say that smartphones play no role whatsoever. The backlash soon over-corrected, as backlashes often do. To give one example, Washington Post writer Taylor Lorenz tweeted, “People are like ‘why are kids so depressed it must be their PHONES!’ But never mention the fact that we’re living in a late stage capitalist hellscape.” Looking at the state of the US and feeling any sense of hope or optimism, she suggested, would be delusional.

The idea that despair is a rational response has become common over the last few years: we are depressed, because the world is depressing. But it’s difficult to think of a time in modern history when that hasn’t been true – the hellscape has been hellscaping for quite some time. There has always been mass inequality, poverty, hate movements and oppression; more often than not, people have faced apocalyptic threats which felt as real to them as climate change does today. If it requires a shift in perspective – or delusion – to be happy in 2023, then surely that has always been the case. So however bad things are, I would reject that despair is inevitable. As John Berger once said, “Hope is not a form of guarantee; it’s a form of energy, and very frequently that energy is strongest in circumstances that are very dark.” 

When conservatives blame smartphones, they’re usually trying to minimise the problems for which they are culpable. But it’s not one thing or another. We might be depressed because the world is legitimately depressing and because of how we experience that information. If I spend too long on my phone, it’s only a matter of time before I feel bad in some way or another. I enjoy joking around with my friends, posting links to songs alongside incisive analysis like “this is still a banger”, and laughing at pictures of funny monkeys, but I’ve struggled to find a way of doing these things which doesn’t involve being subjected to the most annoying and morally repugnant people on the planet. The vibes are bad by design. This might not be true across the board – Instagram, for instance, thrives on envy more than anger – but platforms like Facebook, Twitter and TikTok want us to be pissed off.

Negative feelings create more traction, which is very much a part of the ecology of the system,” Julia Bell, the author of Radical Attention, tells Dazed. “They want people to be angry, because it creates engagement, engagement creates clicks, that creates time on the internet and that creates money – it’s a monetised system of grabbing your attention away from whatever else you might want to do with your time.” Over time, this can breed a kind of misanthropy: it’s easy to conclude that the people gloating over the deaths of migrant children or calling queer people groomers represent a profound truth about the population of the country where you live or humanity at large. There’s no shortage of evidence for this viewpoint, but it’s important not to mistake it for reality – because once you do, you might as well give up.

‘Negative feelings create more traction, which is very much a part of the ecology of social media’ – Julia Bell

When we shy away from discussing the brain-frying effects of smartphones, we find ourselves in the curious position of railing against capitalism while defending the interests of some of the greediest corporations ever to have existed. If we do live in a “late capitalist hellscape”, the idea that smartphones are separate from this – rather than one of its defining features – is absurd. Instead, they represent the culmination of a century’s long effort to capture our attention, to wring out ever greater profit from our time, privacy, and inner lives.Individual identities have become commodified,” Bell tells Dazed. “I think the big problem of the smartphone is that it turns us all into units of consumption or units of production: we’re producing our own identity, we’re consuming other people’s identities. Your identity suddenly becomes something that has enormous commercial value.” The effects of this can be profoundly alienating, particularly when you’re young. Instead of being allowed to figure things out in your own time, there is a pressure to know exactly who you are and then serve yourself up, as a finished product, for the scrutiny of others.

If all this is true, which I think it is, why do criticisms of smartphone technology inspire such defensiveness? I think there’s sometimes an element of denial at play. If I accept that smartphones can be harmful, I am forced to confront two uncomfortable truths: I have a degree of agency to make my life better, and this agency is constrained – both by forces beyond my control and my own impulses. This is a tough realisation, especially if you feel – as I do – that your phone usage is driven by compulsion and making your life worse. Insisting that the problem lies elsewhere is an understandable reaction, especially when the individual solution – swapping your iPhone for a Nokia brick, or whatever – seems so unsatisfactory, so likely to lead to its own forms of social isolation.

We can try to exercise control over our own habits, which is difficult but worthwhile. As someone who still regularly gasps in horror at the arrival of my weekly screentime report, I’m in no position to lecture on this, although I’ve found certain strategies to be helpful, such as using the Pomodoro technique when I’m working or leaving my phone in a different room when I’m watching a film. But we should be thinking bigger – trying to find a middle ground between denying the harms caused by smartphones and positioning them as the root of all evil. As Malcolm Harris explores in his excellent new book, Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism and the World, there is a long tradition of activists demanding community control over technology: this idea first emerged during a student occupation at Stanford University in the 1960s and was later adopted by the Black Panthers as part of their ten-point plan. This history can help us understand that the problem is not necessarily technology itself, which could be wrestled from the hands of profit-driven corporations and turned into something better, but an economic system that treats our wellbeing with such brutal disregard.