The so-called SmartPhone trap: Is it real?

Confirmation bias strikes again!

Maybe I’m being unfair to myself. But I admit that I started reading this New York Times piece with a two-fold bias:

  • The “guest essay” in the Times is titled “This is our chance to pull teenagers out of the smartphone trap.” Maybe it’s our chance, but we’re not going to succeed. That train has left the station a long time ago.
  • I can’t make myself believe that smartphones are the principal cause of loneliness among teenagers, as the article emphatically states. I do believe that they are a cause—and there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence for that—but are there any data to support the hypothesis that they are the major cause? Anecdotes are not data.

Basically, though the authors wouldn’t admit it, the essay boils down to “correlation equals causation.” We know, of course, that it doesn’t. Now I will admit that authors Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge do come right out and try to confront that issue, but they can’t get past it. With reference to a variety of studies they write:

These analyses don’t prove that smartphones and social media are major causes of the increase in teenage loneliness, but they do show that several other causes are less plausible. If anyone has another explanation for the global increase in loneliness at school, we’d love to hear it.

Haidt and Twenge may be right in disparaging “several other causes,” but they need to do better than just say that there’s no evidence for other explanations. In the well-known phrase (attributable to many different people), absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out.

Finally, it’s not just teenagers! When I go to a restaurant, the next table is always full of adults staring at their phones. I could go on… but I won’t.

Categories: Teaching & Learning, Technology