Apple will soon release Screen Time, a program permitting parents to remotely monitor and limit the intervals children spend on their iPhones and specific apps. Features in the new Android operating system will likely enable similar capabilities, but for most children, these are potentially harmful.
Pressure for action comes from activist investors amplifying unwarranted hysteria about the negative effects of smartphones.
Certainly, adults and children take smartphones into workplaces, classrooms and bedrooms. Social media, games and chatting are an obvious distraction from productivity, learning and courteous attention and cultivating relationships with those more immediately present. However, just as we teach our children to master other temptations — not to abuse alcohol and exercise prudence in choosing friends — we need to work with them to establish limits and sensible habits for smartphone use.
That begins with adults setting a good example — no texting at the dinner table and locking the phone in the glovebox while driving if you cannot avoid succumbing to the temptation to answer incoming messages. But it also requires patient discussions with children about when to silence the smartphone or place it in the backpack and requiring children to live with the consequences of failures at self-discipline.
Most of us are online continuously when we are not sleeping or performing tasks like meeting with a boss or in court where smartphones may be prohibited. Psychologists, through controlled experiments, have concluded the obvious — if those ring, beep or buzz and we are precluded from responding, anxiety and blood pressure rise, concentration lessens and mental acuity diminishes.
The same would have likely applied were adults and teenagers prohibited from answering ringing landlines or opening mail as it arrived, but we didn't put quotas on phone calls and letters. Instead, we learned to master those impulses.
In the old days, I asked my secretary to screen my calls and mail while I was writing, and now I put my cellphone out of sight or on silent when I am making a presentation or drafting these columns.
We need to teach our children to do the same. If we exercise self-control on their behalf — as helicopter parents too often do — then our children will not likely develop the executive skills necessary to occasionally refrain from multitasking and balance priorities as adults.
The day comes that they go off to college and without parents monitoring their every waking moment, they spend too much time gaming or chatting and flunk out of school.
Teenagers on their own are leaving Facebook and its questionable opinion shaping influences for more private interactions on Snapchat and rightly view parental spying through smartphone apps as an invasion of privacy. And a child whose privacy is not respected will not learn similar consideration for others.
Psychologists are concluding smartphones and computers are making us less smart. Relying on the web for more information reduces our capacity to memorize, and often we are confused about what we know from memory and what we have seen on the web. And it lessens our ability to perform functions like use a research library, because we rely on Google's search engine.
Such conclusions see the demands of intellectual work as too static and unchanging.
Many Victorian-era homes were built to plans kept by a chief carpenter in his head but then blueprints came along. Good builders were freed for other pursuits — such as putting up more homes simultaneously and better managing the efficient use of workers and materials.
Static psychological experiments assess mental effectiveness in terms of technology as it once was — stacks of books in the library, articles on file and spreadsheets — but not in terms of an emerging world where humans will communicate directly with the web through direct brain interface enabled by the successors of today's handheld devices. And more immediately, humans will offload even more complex tasks to computer apps — for example, revising the plans and estimating the cost of another bedroom and bathroom for a home already under construction.
The ancient Hebrews and early Christians memorized scripture to pass the Bible across generations before the Old Testament and Gospels were finally written down. Once freed from time lost in their youth to memorizing, they hardly lost their capacity to argue endlessly about what the texts meant and required.