Description: Widespread use of smartphones undermines empathy, attention and relationships in children, and undercuts education. What now?

The following transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for ease of reading. 

Speaker: Catherine Steiner-Adair, Harvard Medical School

Interviewer: Stratford Sherman, Accompli

(Transcription by RA Fisher Ink)

Sherman: Welcome, everybody. Catherine and I are here to talk about the impact of smartphones on children. Catherine is a consulting psychologist, she’s written a book called “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age,” so she’s had a chance to study this. Catherine also consults for schools from the pre-K level all the way up and has a lot of very practical clinical knowledge to bear.

So what’s the problem statement here, Catherine?

Steiner-Adair: I guess the problem statement would be that smartphones are wreaking havoc on smart kids’ capacity to learn in school in the way we know children really need to learn.

Sherman: Okay, let me turn to the audience just for a moment. How many parents are in the room? Just raise your hands. A show of hands, how many parents are completely unconcerned about the impact of smartphones on their children?

Steiner-Adair: Just one.

Sherman: We’ve got one.

Steiner-Adair: Two.

Sherman: We’re going to want to hear from you at the Q&A. So we’ve level set, there is concern. What is it that people are or should be concerned about?

Steiner-Adair: Well, there are so many areas that people actually should be concerned about. Because when you think about why kids go to school, they’re growing their brains at school, they’re developing their capacity for some of the most incredibly important skills they will have when they work and going forward, like the capacity for deep thought, singular focus, empathy, the ability to make moral and critical inferences from what they read, the ability to do a deep dive into their own creativity and learn that they have this luscious thing called imagination that generates ideas rather than just click and the next idea pops up, and click and the next idea pops up. And then just in terms of neurological developments, smartphones are stimulants to the brain, and as a species we love stimulants. And whether it’s a child learning a lowercase A to uppercase A, every time you learn on the smartphone or a device, you get a reward, butterflies, sparkles. And what happens is over time, when kids are constantly learning from technology, not only are they getting these endless stimulants but they start to crave the stimulant and the craving can become a habit and suddenly playing outside is so boring. Lots to be concerned about.

Sherman: So capacity for deep thought, capacity for empathy, capacity for critical thinking, all of these, are they actually impaired by interaction with smartphones?

Steiner-Adair: They are disrupted by interactions with smartphones and in some ways they are impaired because if you look at reading, for example, when we read from a book, we read the best, that’s when the whole brain lights up for language development. But it’s not just language and vocabulary you’re looking at, when you read to a child, when you read from a paper book what happens is your tone of voice is much richer than even when you read on a Kindle, think about it yourself, your tone is more flat. And then the other thing that happens when you read on a Kindle or an iPad, especially if you’re doing homework, you read fast, you skim, there’s something about the brain interacting that makes us want to race to the righthand margin, not go back because it’s really annoying to flip back on a Kindle, whereas on a book you can just go back. And when you don’t read deeply and empathically you also don’t develop the moral learning from a book, “Oh, he hit him. Okay, what happened next,” rather than, “Oh, he hit him. Why did he do that? Would I do that?” So we don’t see the same whole, rich, lighting up of the brain when you read on a tablet or on a smartphone.

Sherman: So give us a horror story or two. What are the things that you have observed?

Steiner-Adair: Oh, I think for me, the saddest thing, it’s a pretty simple horror story, that kids are playing Fortnite on their mobile phones when they’re sitting in class. And I’d say the next simple thing is that—well, I’ll tell you how it was told to me recently by some older kids, I said, “You know, we’re really worried about the middle schoolers now that our school has gone one-to-one,” because when we were in middle school, middle schools were you learned how to bump into people and you had to get over all that awkwardness of learning how to socialize and you learned how to sit next to somebody at the cafeteria and make conversation, they’re not doing that. But that’s the most important thing you learn in middle school.

Sherman: I thought it was just to get beaten up.

Steiner-Adair: Well, you know, you learn how not to get beaten up too. And you can avoid all of that by binding your social anxiety in your phone and pretending something really cool and groovy is going on and never having to talk. And schools say, “Well, we don’t allow phones in classrooms, but then in the cafeteria…” Well, think of all the learning that goes on over lunch in the cafeteria, making eye contact, having the courage to sit down next somebody you don’t know.

Sherman: So is there hard evidence that kids are actually talking to each other significantly less, they’re talking to other members of Homo sapiens less as a result of smartphones?

Steiner-Adair: They certainly say they are. I’ve traveled around the world and they say, 50% of the kids say, “I’m addicted to my phone,” at least 50% of them say something that I’ve gotten used to hearing and I stopped asking, “What do you mean?” They say, “My phone is my identity.” Think about that. “My primary relationship,” which is why your kids have horrible meltdowns if you take their phone away, which you should do if they have done something that means they lose their phone.

Sherman: So there’s been pushback and you, as I recall, had several fairly compelling examples of authoritative institutions pushing back.

Steiner-Adair: Yes. Well, France has paid attention to the research that’s come out, really in the last four or five years, and decided that—they have created a ban on the presence of phones for elementary and middle school students. And increasingly, independent schools that can function independently are really pushing back on the presence of phones. There’s a school in the upper east side of New York that’s one of the most independent girls’ schools called Chapin and they decided to eliminate phones for everybody all the way through high school, based on their understanding of the research that the reason kids come to school and smart girls are getting this amazing education is to learn from each other, face to face, to debate, to stay focused, and most of all to do the hard work and slow work of learning.

And what we see also with phones in schools is because they’re stimulants, kids crave them and they’re constantly on them. And learning is hard and it’s boring a lot of the time and it requires enormous self-regulation. And another way which these phones are very disruptive is that they are the enthesis of helping kids develop patience, the capacity to tolerate frustration, and to stay on task when it’s really hard and you might not love what you have to learn.

Sherman: So what for me is the most compelling datum, which I’m sure a lot of you have read in the newspapers, is the degree to which technologists in Silicon Valley are sending their kids to Montessori and Waldorf schools to protect them from the very products that they’re creating.

Steiner-Adair: Yes. Well, this was—we’re here to talk about ethics and for me this was one of the most, the most profound questions for folks who are developing educational software or software technology of all kinds and that’s that this is a completely unregulated business and its impact on children. If I asked all of you with babies and toddlers to give me your kids for 2 to 4 hours, put them in front of a device just to see if maybe they’re not quite as smart, self-regulated, calm, by the time they enter kindergarten I don’t think you’d say yes. And what we see is—what worries me is that the economics of this is huge and there are not enough psychologists and people invited on boards and in regulatory capacities to even begin to bring the research we already have, that we know about child development, brain development, social/emotional intelligence to bear on the development of things like the iPad potty trainer, which is very serious stuff.

Sherman: I mean, should we even need psychologists, I don’t mean it in any way to demean the value of psychology, but I think just on this little audience here we’ve established that parents notice that there is a problem. And there is, just to simplify it, there is a growing awareness that there is actually something toxic about cell phone use for at least for developing minds. And I would argue it’s not doing me any good either. It raises the question though about parents. I mean, are parents not shoving screens in front of their children, much as an earlier generation shoved pacifiers into the mouths of their babies?

Steiner-Adair: Yes, they’re doing it more so. And the problem is that a digital pacifier works very differently from something that you actually suck, sucking is a human activity that actually is not a bad thing and we need to soothe our babies. In fact, the very first thing you learn how to do with every new baby you have is how to calm this one down, and how to calm this one down. And that is the single most important first task of parenting. And what we see is that when parents today hold a smartphone over a fussy baby on the changing table, that baby quiets, but it doesn’t calm down. Its coping mechanism becomes a stimulant and it kind of goes into the zone. So what teachers tell me everywhere is that I can tell instantly which kids have had parents teach them, “I know, honey, this is so frustrating. Let’s play a little game while we wait in line,” and which kids have been handed a digital pacifier because they cannot wait their turn. They want the stimulant.

But the flipside is also very serious. And I get this, if I were a mom today, I would be struggling with this absolutely. So I’m not saying I’m not vulnerable. The point is we’re all so vulnerable and here’s what I want to say, one of the first things that happens to us, remember when you had your baby and they’re really, really fussy, and suddenly they fall asleep on your chest and you get this huge rush of, “Oh, my God, I love this child so much,” and there’s something about the way we are created as a species that when we do the hard work of parenting a child and calm them down, we get this hit of serotonin and a dopamine rush and that gives us the patience to do it again the next night and the next night and none of that happens when you are doing a night feeding texting, checking the market, binge watching on your iPad the latest series.

Sherman: So this is interesting. We have, not just a generation, but several generations of young people who have been raised in increasing states of intimacy with their screens in general and I think we would agree that the smartphone is the most compelling device with a screen yet invented. And it’s interesting, people establish these extraordinarily intimate [DROPS 0:12:52.1] of the technology is to distance people from one another and perhaps, to some degree, from themselves.

And the question of where the responsibility lies and where the solutions might be found is challenging to think about and to help us think about it, I’d like to just take our few remaining minutes and devote them to the audience. What thoughts do you have? I see a hand right here and another one right there and a third and that’s probably about as much time as we’re going to have. But is there a mic runner? So we’re starting over there.

Luebkeman: Okay, I guess I’ll go. I was the one who put my hand up and I’m not too worried about my kids. Chris Luebkeman from Arup. So I’m actually very concerned about it in general for society but for my kids, both rejected the phone so that’s—and we didn’t give them a phone nor did we have tv growing up so we’re a bit of an anomaly in that case. But if you go five, ten years from now, what do you think some of the trends or the pathways for the impacts will be of this with our children as they’re more—with their phone being their best friend? Take that forward another five or ten years, how do you see the impacts of that playing out?

Steiner-Adair: So I don’t know what’s going to happen in five or ten years, I can tell you some of the impact I hear now from older or young adults who have grown up this way. And one of the saddest things I hear college students or slightly older say is, “You know, it’s so ironic, we’re the most connected generation in history but we suck at falling in love. We don’t know how to be vulnerable. We’re not very trusting. We tend to binge drink and hook up but we don’t really know the art of courtship.” And that to me, I think, is something we need to pay a great deal of attention to on so many levels. And it’s not that phones per se are the only factor at play at that but when we see an increase in social anxiety in high school and college kids, a decrease in actual healthy dating, and a spike as we all know in some very toxic behavior between young men and young women that have nothing to do with good love and intimacy. We have some work cut out.

Sherman: So regrettably we have about a third of a second left. We will have more conversation about this in the hallway. Please, there were a lot of hands up. You had a final thought, Catherine?

Steiner-Adair: Final thought, yes. We need to completely rethink education, what is the heart of matter, what belongs in the core of education today. And I think going into the age of artificial intelligence and who knows what phones will look like, I think that the most important thing to teach kids today and the tools for not just their thriving but surviving are human tools, the tools of our humanity, tools of our heart, there is no app for love. We have to teach them and prepare them to live, social responsibility and empathy and compassion, we need to teach them ethical decision-making, we have to teach them a sense of stewardship for all people as well as the earth we all share. And I think there’s nothing here we can’t do but it requires us to do and think so differently than we already have and the most dangerous thing would be to assume that the cannon is correct, our approach to education is sufficient, and just throwing more technology at children without looking at the social and emotional cost would be a huge mistake.

Sherman: So in sum, it’s really up to us.

Steiner-Adair: Yes. It is.

Sherman: A thought to end with. Thank you very much.