Are smartphones bad for us? Five world experts answer

January 11, 2024

In 2007, Steve Jobs presented the iPhone to the public. Several months later, the day the phones went on sale, the Guardian published an article headlined “iPhone set to struggle”.

“Apple’s iPhone combines a phone, music and video player with web and email capabilities, but researchers found demand for these converged devices was lowest in affluent countries,” the article said.


But despite their sudden ubiquity, there’s still a lot we don’t know about how our smartphones are affecting us. Are they alienating people from each other, or helping them to connect with others? Do they affect children differently than adults? And how do we step away from our phones if our whole lives are on them?

There isn’t a broad consensus as of yet; different studies draw different conclusions. To attempt to capture the current state of the discussion surrounding smartphones, we spoke to five experts. Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Why are so many people worried about their phone use?

Anna Lembke: Because many people feel themselves caught in the vortex of compulsive overuse. Some people even hate their phones, but still struggle to reduce use. In 2021, US adults spent on average eight hours with digital media each day. A growing body of evidence shows that the more time a person spends consuming digital media each day, the more likely they are to struggle with depression and anxiety. We see clinically that when depressed and anxious patients spend less time online, mood and anxiety improve without our having done any other intervention.

Gloria Mark: Yes. We know empirically that people’s attention spans have shortened over the last 20 years. We also know anecdotally, from what people report, that they’re more distracted.

Amy Orben: It’s a very human trait to worry about new technologies: people were concerned about the printing press corrupting society. So that’s a major part of it. But also the technologies are different now, they’re more personalized. I think the concern about phones as a singular entity are overblown. Phones are tools. And like all other technologies, their impact really depends on who uses them and how. There are valuable concerns about specific types of phone use, and specific ways technologies are designed that I think we should discuss as a society.

Laurence Steinberg: I think people worry when they feel they can’t control their use, especially if they’ve tried to stop or cut back and failed, or if they believe their use is interfering with other aspects of life.

Zoetanya Sujon: Every new technology, when it comes out – from the landline phone to the television – brings to the surface concerns about what is real, what is mediated, what is performative? In that sense, people are right to be concerned, because they have lots of uncertainty ahead. The smartphone is also one of the most intimate technologies. It’s in our pockets. We put it on our faces, it’s close to our bodies. It also has such a wide nexus of uses – work, social, private, very private. When someone’s looking at their phone, you don’t know what they’re doing. But there are also a lot of things that are very pro-social, beneficial and positive. So yes, people are right to worry, but they’re also right to think about things that are more positive.

How does smartphone use affect children and teens differently than adults?

Lembke: Children’s brains are going through a rapid process of development where the circuits they use least are pruned [cut back] and the circuits they use most often made more efficient through a process called myelination. Hence, childhood and adolescence is a critical time of building neural circuits that will provide the scaffolding for the adult brain.

If children are spending all their time online, they will have a complex and elaborated neural scaffolding for that but not for other important activities, like learning delayed gratification, frustration tolerance, in-person socialization, mind-body connection, etc. Also, adolescents are exquisitely sensitive to social cues and so are more likely to be influenced by the social contagion effect of the internet.

Mark: Children have developing minds, and there’s a part of the mind that’s called executive function, and this doesn’t really mature until children become teenagers. It’s a really important part of the brain because it helps us filter out distractions. But for kids, this part of the brain isn’t developed completely, so they don’t have as great an ability to control distractions as people who are older.

Kids also develop habitual behaviors. With using their phones, once they have these habits developed, they’re really hard to break. If, instead of spending their time playing outside with other kids, they develop a habit of spending time on your phone, they lose a proprioceptive sense of behavior – an understanding of their body moving through space. It’s important for kids to get outside, run around, play and develop coordination, but being on their phones and computers doesn’t give them the chance to develop that.

Orben: A key part of these “moral panics” [surrounding new technologies] is that, historically, they’re often about people who are not power holders in society. Largely women and kids. But I do think there are reasons why we might be more concerned about young people. They are the canaries in the coalmine. They use technologies early, and they often adopt them the fastest. So by studying them, we might be able to predict what will happen in other groups. They’re also in a period of development where their brains are still developing their social skills. And if you’re a teenager, that’s an inherently social time where you really care about what other people think, and where the social parts of the online world can have a heightened impact.

Steinberg: The literature on teenagers is inconclusive, and few studies have the ability to determine causality. Some studies find very small correlations between social media use and mental health problems, but most research can’t distinguish between cause and effect, and there are studies that show that kids who are depressed tend to use social media more than non-depressed kids, so that depression is “causing” the social media use, rather than the reverse. Very few studies have adequate controls for confounding variables.

Sujon: There’s huge debate here. There’s probably as much evidence about the harmful effects of media, including smartphones, as there is about the positive effects. One of the big concerns is that children are still developing, and have less capacity to navigate things like advertising, and the wild and startling worlds that phones give access to.

Full article here:

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