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The Smartphone: The best and the brightest's plague on our children

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Video games? Pornography? Cyberbullying? All these last three and more have been rolled into one "must have" device that is the true scourge of our young: the smartphone.

Kevin and Marilyn

The best minds of this generation are not going into the Peace Corps, politics, religious life and certainly not into teaching. They have taken their education, their talents and their energy off to California's Silicon Valley. And, thus, they consciously or unconsciously are engaged in corrupting the hearts, the minds and the souls of our children.

Overstatement? Perhaps, but hear us out.

What has become the biggest thing in the lives of America's youth? It is certainly not learning about the thrilling Lewis and Clark Expedition. Or mathematics. The academic achievement scores of American students continue to decline. Sports? Yes, but for a small percent. Pop music? Again, few. Video games? Pornography? Cyberbullying? All these last three and more have been rolled into one "must have" device that is the true scourge of our young: the smartphone.

But wait a minute. Haven't we adults found the smartphone to be an enormously valuable tool? They provide us, literally at our fingertips, with hard to get at information. They save us hours searching for products and services we need to run our homes and businesses. They tell us the quickest and the best directions to where we want to go. In numerous ways, they help us organize our lives. And, they keep us in touch with our kids when they are out of sight! Yes and yes. But that is not how they are using their phones.

Some facts: According to a 2015 study, nearly 75 percent of teenagers had access to smartphones and on average they unlock and check their devices 95 times a day. Including TV and computers, they have their eyes glued to screens close to nine hours a day. The content of these screens is provided by the work product, again, of the best and most talented minds of this generation. They work for Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Google, YouTube, YouTube Kids and, of course, they are busy at work on the Next-Big-Thing. Their job is to capture in any way possible the gullible attention of teens and, increasingly, pre-teens. And they are doing a bang-up job. Their company's values are soaring on the stock exchange.

To the average adult, the menace of smartphones is on the road, from the very real danger of a head-on collision with an irresponsible driver texting her dentist that "I may be 10 minutes late for my appointment" (crash). Or, if you park your car, don't think you're free of the smartphone danger, because bearing down on you, with eyes firmly focused on his iPhone X, is a pedestrian (usually young) who is about to knock you back to the street into the path of another texting driver! But we digress. Back to the truly serious menace.

A newspaper recently reported on the experience of one family that thoughtfully and gingerly responded to the anxious whines of their 12-year-old, junior high son. Not having a smartphone, he was miserable, being left out of parties and the social life of the school. So, being modern parents, they sought advice from friends and even took an online course on managing smartphone use. They even downloaded sample contracts. After setting rules and eliciting promises about when he could use his phone, and what he could -- and could not -- use it for, they gave in.

Their experience with broken promises, continual squabbling and spoiled family dinners is hardly unusual. Commenting on the wisdom of their decision to give into their son's pleading, the mother said, "Who in hell would give a junior-high school child a gaming platform to walk through the world with? It feels a little like trying to teach your kid how to use cocaine, but in a 'balanced way.'"

This mother's parallel to the addictive power of cocaine may seem overblown, but maybe not. By the time they graduate from high school, few young people have developed self-control. Many never do, witness our current death rate from opioids and other addiction. Teens are still in the process of forming the good habits they will need to be successful in life -- as workers, as spouses, as citizens and eventually as parents.

Forging a character has always been a fundamental task of growing up. Being able to resist temptations is at the core of the development of an adult. But does the possession of a smartphone help or hinder this development?

The advocates of smartphones for young people make several good points. Some children possess the discipline to use their phones judiciously. In times of trouble (think: violent weather, family issues and, Lord save us, terrorism) parents need to be in touch with their children. Also, denying children access to smartphones means denying them access to extraordinary learning resources and opportunities to be creative, such as that offered by "Minecraft" and other educational video games. Yes, but much of this information and opportunity is available at home on a computer.

The list of dangers smartphones present to young people is long and varied and, of course, depends on the individual child. Among them are: students' loss of attention span and of focus on their studies caused by the constant interruptions of smartphones; the danger of the hyper-social networking and cyberbullying greatly advanced by this technology; the crippling anxiety many experience having been "left out of the conversation," a conversation where many are victimized and labeled as "losers" or worse; and the destruction of family cohesion brought on by children's failure to control their screen time and follow rules to which they signed on.

Facebook and friends have released pestilence among us that most adults can handle. Not so for the still growing brains and developing self-control of our children. Parents, resist! Hold the line!

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline, Mass.


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