Rage against the Machines?

Smash the smartphone in your own hand? Go ahead, but let’s not lobby Congress just yet.

Should we start smashing the machines? Tucker Carlson has made Luddism a force again. Destroy them before they break our society. Arguing with Ben Shapiro, he recently said he would ban the use of driverless trucks lest they leave a huge cohort of American men unemployed. In a debate with Charlie Kirk he asserted that we build robots and machines for us, and if they’re doing social harm, we have the right to stop them. And then on his show he came around to smartphones. It’s science, says Tucker Carlson. “Smartphone use makes your kids sadder, slower, and more isolated, and over time can kill them.” And then he said Congress should ban them for kids, while comparing them to cigarettes.

Let’s slow down on legislation and dwell on that analogy to cigarettes for a bit. Smartphones have been ubiquitous for perhaps five years now. It was decades before the harmful effects of cigarette addiction translated into social stigma against smoking and the wave of local ordinances that pushed smoking out of restaurants and bars. Do we know what we’re doing yet?

It’s true that there are lots of studies suggesting that kids are having more mental-health problems, and some adults, too. Those problems are correlated with a decline in their time socializing, and a huge rise in time on screens. Social media is also shown in studies to drive rates of depression. Social media is used as a replacement for normal social activity, or displaces it. And probably distorts it. The fact is that social-media interaction is a parsimonious replacement for friendship. No amount of social-media “interaction” will ever have the same hormonal effect as falling apart in laughter at an inside joke with a group of friends.

My instincts tell me to smash the phone in my own hand. And to not let my kids near one for too long. But, I’m not quite ready to lobby Congress yet.

How much of the decline in socialization is due to screens, and how much of the uptake in screens is due to a decline of socialization? In half a century, America has gone from having over 90 percent of its children born to wedded parents, to just 59 percent. Combine that with plunging fertility rates, and that means smaller households and therefore less socializing in the home, too. Lowered fertility over generations means much smaller kin networks of aunts, uncles, and cousins.

Family dysfunction is greater at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. But a kind of hyperactivity that crowds out socialization is more typical up top. The rise of the “organization childhood” and helicopter parenting predated the ubiquity of smartphones and radically began reducing the amount of time kids could be socializing outside with friends. The social effect has been disastrous.

Parents who are attracted to the idea of providing a “free range” childhood to their kids run into a difficulty. The neighborhood ethic has disappeared. It was this ethic that allowed kids to organize their own playtime in afternoons, aided by neighbors and stay-at-home moms who watched at a distance or facilitated in a pinch. I was recently talking about this with Samuel Hammond of the Niskanen Center, when he encapsulated it with an evocative phrase. We had seen in our lifetimes the “enclosure of the parental commons.” Helicopter parents can navigate this by filling their kids’ days and nights with activity, but many others have just allowed screens to satisfy their kids who find that there’s no one to play with nearby.

We simply don’t know enough about the specific role screen time is playing in depression to be confident that banning it for kids is a good idea.

And we may just have to get used to the idea that, like cigarettes, some social nuisances cannot be solved in one generation. People who are skeptical of screen culture can continue to heroically opt out where they can. Groups of people who are skeptical of the screen’s effect on children are making schools and other institutions that ban them. These are done in high-income neighborhoods and already have a bit of social cachet for that reason. I expect them to spread. Before reaching for legislation, we should have a little patience and encourage lots of private experimentation to see where smartphone use and social media should be discouraged, or allowed.

Revulsion at what social media is doing to our common spaces is also starting to get institutional expression. Like several other unlikely and long-shot rebellions, this one began in Cork, Ireland. The Anchor Bar in Courtmacsherry made headlines around the world when it asked patrons to refrain from using their smartphones because it was ruining conversation. Allowing social stigmas and generational changes to do their work will help inform any eventual laws on these matters.

Social media may eventually become like gambling, or other semi-legal vices: something that is done in extreme moderation by those who consider themselves normal individuals, and embraced as a lifestyle only by degenerates who think they have it mastered. But banning it outright for kids might be a misdiagnosis of the problem. If you’re alarmed, take action in your home, your business, your workplace, or in your school. Better yet, look into reopening the parental commons that allow children the socialization they need. But let’s be a little more patient in figuring this out before asking for Nancy Pelosi’s help.

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