Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Trail of human wreckage

David F. Brooks looking for something cutting-edge to condemn that has nothing to do with sexual assault, tax cuts for the rich, or Russia, asks "How Evil is Tech?"

He's not talking about 3D printing, gene therapy, or cancer vaccines, of course, but the Internet of Kids, who are spending too much time on their damn phones, making them sad and suicidal:

Some now believe tech is like the tobacco industry — corporations that make billions of dollars peddling a destructive addiction. Some believe it is like the N.F.L. — something millions of people love, but which everybody knows leaves a trail of human wreckage in its wake.
Surely the people in tech — who generally want to make the world a better place — don’t want to go down this road.
Who are "some"? And don't call me Surely. But that sounds pretty scary: how many kids are dying, on average, from their habitual phone use?

it is destroying the young. Social media promises an end to loneliness but actually produces an increase in solitude and an intense awareness of social exclusion. Texting and other technologies give you more control over your social interactions but also lead to thinner interactions and less real engagement with the world.
As Jean Twenge has demonstrated in book and essay, since the spread of the smartphone, teens are much less likely to hang out with friends, they are less likely to date, they are less likely to work.
No, really, they're less likely to work (and this has nothing to do with the fact that traditional teenage jobs have largely been taken over by desperate older adults, from single mothers to over-65s who can't live on their meager Social Security—it's the Internet addiction!). And less likely to date! As Twenge says in that Atlantic article ("Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?"):
Today’s teens are also less likely to date. The initial stage of courtship, which Gen Xers called “liking” (as in “Ooh, he likes you!”), kids now call “talking”—an ironic choice for a generation that prefers texting to actual conversation. After two teens have “talked” for a while, they might start dating. But only about 56 percent of high-school seniors in 2015 went out on dates; for Boomers and Gen Xers, the number was about 85 percent.
The decline in dating tracks with a decline in sexual activity. The drop is the sharpest for ninth-graders, among whom the number of sexually active teens has been cut by almost 40 percent since 1991. The average teen now has had sex for the first time by the spring of 11th grade, a full year later than the average Gen Xer. Fewer teens having sex has contributed to what many see as one of the most positive youth trends in recent years: The teen birth rate hit an all-time low in 2016, down 67 percent since its modern peak, in 1991....
Oh, the humanity! The Internet is making kids do what David Brooks has been urging them to do throughout his career! This must be stopped!

But as everybody who has ever met a Millennial knows, the newer generations don't date in the first place because they travel in packs rather than couples, and this actually doesn't stop them from having sex if they really want to. As to the other thing, the unhappiness, maybe we ought to think about taking that seriously:
The time that seniors spend on activities such as student clubs and sports and exercise has changed little in recent years. Combined with the decline in working for pay, this means iGen teens have more leisure time than Gen X teens did, not less.
So what are they doing with all that time? They are on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed.
This sounds pretty alarming, as Brooks summarizes Twenge's data:

Eighth graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say they are unhappy than those who spend less time. Eighth graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent. Teens who spend three or more hours a day on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide, like making a plan for how to do it. Girls, especially hard hit, have experienced a 50 percent rise in depressive symptoms.
Yipes! Then again, as I learn from Alexandra Samuel for JSTOR Daily (via Lisa Guernsey/Slate), maybe not. The most immediate thing would be that the project from which Twenge found these appalling trends, the National Institute on Drug Abuse's annual Monitoring the Future, found that the American teenagers of 2013 were the happiest they'd been since 1972, as Twenge and colleagues reported two years ago; so the decline from there to to 2015 could be simply reverting to the norm. Indeed, not only does this turn out to be the case, but the curve isn't even all that steep:

And the difference in happiness between high school students who use more social media and those who use it less is really not appreciable at all, in the big picture.
We've got, in short, a big nothing finding here, though it shouldn't be a surprise, since "the MTF dataset does not measure anxiety and depression, so it is not possible to test changes in mental health using these data" anyway, as Jean Twenge (!) said in 2010.

If this is the kind of data our famous academic psychologists are using to terrorize us, it must be time for a blogger ethics panel, as Atrios used to say.

Nor is it the first time this kind of thing has happened. Twenge keys her "finding" to the triumph of the smartphone around 2012, but 15 years ago it was the personal computer that was making teenagers suicidal, according to the stereotype expectations examined by Elisheva F. Gross of UCLA:
Among them were the following: (1) that gender predicts usage, i.e., that boys spend more time online, surfing the web and playing violent games, while girls chat or shop online; (2) that Internet use causes social isolation and depression, especially for teens; and (3) that adolescents use the Internet for anonymous identity experimentation
Detailed reporting of California 7th- and 10th-graders' Internet (including detailed logs of instant messaging) and school-based adjustment showed, however, that
adolescent boys’ and girls’ online activities have become more similar than different. On average, boys and girls alike described their online social interaction as (1) occurring in private settings such as e-mail and instant messages, (2) with friends who are also part of their daily, offline lives, and (3) devoted to fairly ordinary yet intimate topics (e.g., friends, gossip). No associations were found between Internet usage and well-being.
Note the crucial element there: that the students' Internet relationships weren't sad, "thin" substitutes for meatspace relationships, but extensions of the friendships they already had, adding another dimension of hanging out. This is all not to minimize the suffering and confusion involved in being an adolescent, by the way—just to insist it's ridiculous to blame it on any particular technology, when it's been with humanity forever.

But there's another cohort of people whose smartphone use has drastically increased, the 18- to 49 -year-olds, and as Samuel remarks,
What does that have to do with teens? Well, let me give you another name for 18-to-49-year-olds: parents. While teens were old hands at social networking by that point, they were still stuck texting on their feature phones. Meanwhile, their parents started catching up on the social networking front—with the added opportunity of accessing LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter on their shiny new iPhones and Androids.
I’d love to tell you we used this shiny new tech to look up educational resources for our children, or play them classical music in utero. And sure, there was a bit of that. But you know what smartphones and social media are really great at? Tuning out your children.
Teens do have a problem with smartphones, but not necessarily their own smartphones—with Mom's and Dad's, whose faces are glued to the screen just when Junior really needs some affirmation. It's also adults who use the Internet for anonymous identity exploration (guilty as charged!), and maybe in conjunction with loneliness and depression. Don't know if Brooks wants to lecture us on any of those scores, but I suspect he doesn't. Everybody needs to get out more, including adolescents, and read more on paper, and interact in the physical world, no doubt.

Something else—it's admirable, if a little surprising, to see Brooks coming out against the cruel rapacity of capitalism, shocked-shocked to learn that companies are creating these products in order to make profits,

the tech industry... is causing this addiction on purpose, to make money. Tech companies understand what causes dopamine surges in the brain and they lace their products with “hijacking techniques” that lure us in and create “compulsion loops."
But he's missing a couple of things here, too. In the first place he's missing the important point of how the social media platforms are making money, which is not analogous to tobacco companies; it's by selling advertising. And the second thing is that the kids are out front in resisting that: blocking ads or ignoring them, and using the social media as their own virtual territory, building institutions and rituals completely distinct from the shopping platforms the enemy is trying to entice them into. Come to think of it, so do we all, bottom up, making a "confidently plural" country, with all the national narrative you can swallow. You'd think Brooks would have some appreciation for that, right?

And the wicked corporations are ripping off other wicked corporations, not us. It's got its horrible aspects, to be sure, but we can work with it, and it hasn't killed many of us so far; the trail of human wreckage is someplace else.

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