In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates tells the story of the god Theuth approaching the King of Egypt, hardly able to contain his excitement about sharing his latest and greatest invention: an innovative technology he called “writing.” The King was enthusiastically opposed.
“This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls,” he said. “They will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”
That’s right. There was a time when well-intentioned adults feared what reading would do to young people’s mental health. The technology changes and evolves, but every generation experiences their own version of this ubiquitous panic about what ________ is doing to our children. Indeed the bogeyman may change his shape, but he is always there in some form. Books, televisions, radios, computers, music players, video games: all have had their time under fire at some point in history. Today, it’s screen time. Every other parent is petrified by phones and tablets. It’s why our kids are unprecedentedly anxious, depressed, lonely, overweight, devoid of communication skills, and on and on.
Is it though? Or like that Egyptian king, are our fears misplaced? Research just published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry by a team of psychologists dug through over 40 studies on the link between screen time and depression and anxiety among young people. “There doesn’t seem to be any evidence base that would explain the level of panic and consternation around these issues,” said lead researcher Candice L. Odgers. “We’re all looking in the wrong direction…The real threat isn’t smartphones. It’s this campaign of misinformation and the generation of fear among parents and educators.”
You’re worried about screens… but you’re missing far bigger concerns in the process. And even if phones were harmful, the reality is we’re not going back to a world without them. So let’s prioritize our panic.
Let’s worry about spending more time with our kids, even if it means playing Fortnite or watching Twitch with them. Let’s worry about them eating right, even if they are scrolling while they do it. Let’s worry about them engaging in the things that spark pure joy in them, even if some of those things are on the iPad. Let’s worry about preparing and adjusting them to the cultural shifts of an ever-changing world, even if we cherish the good ol’ days of landlines and buttons and cassette tapes and answering machines.
Because it’s not the screens that are the problem, it’s what we make of them. And right now we’re making a mess of them.