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BETSY HART: It's not smart to fear smartphones

on September 29, 2013 1:39 AM

Boy, give young people a new way to interact socially, and it’s doom and gloom from the rest of us.

As writer Tom Standage reminded us earlier this year in The New York Times, in the 17th century, for instance, many pillars of society complained about a novelty, the coffeehouse, where people were beginning to gather and exchange ideas with folks outside of their typical social spheres.

There was special worry that this would corrupt the young.

A lawyer in Cambridge, England, echoed many of his peers when he bemoaned this new social outlet and the “vast Loss of Time grown out of a pure Novelty. For who can apply close to a Subject with his Head full of the Din of a Coffee-house?”

Flash forward to a recent visit by comedian Louis C.K. to late-night host Conan O’Brien, where C.K. pronounced himself unwilling to let his kids have cellphones, a stand that has won huge applause across every kind of media. Cellphones are isolating, he believes, “toxic,” they’ve created a situation where kids in particular don’t learn to interact as they should with others, and on it goes.

Yep. Sounds familiar.

In any event, you know that guilty parents everywhere said another “uh-oh.” And you can almost hear the self-satisfied ones saying, “We don’t allow our kids cellphones, either! We’re special!”

By the way, I’m all for reasonable restrictions, whether it be age or just prying the devices out of clutched hands during meal and family times and at bedtime.

But mostly, I think smartphones are like any other tool. They can be used for good — or not.

And guess what? If American young people are becoming more isolated, it’s not because of some complicated device they walk around with.

Anyway, it’s no surprise to me that a study commissioned by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, part of the respected Pew Research Center in Washington, revealed some interesting things about a nation of so-called isolated Internet and cellphone users.

The study, released in 2011, showed that when it comes to social-networking sites, with Facebook being the largest, “Social-networking sites are increasingly used to keep up with close social ties”; “Facebook users are much more politically engaged than most people”; “Facebook users get more social support than other people”; and they have more close relationships and are even more generally trusting of people than are others who are demographically similar but not on Facebook.

And a study released by the same Pew unit in 2009 revealed that, on many key indexes, active Internet users, cellphone users and bloggers are more likely to have larger social networks of people they consider their “closest and most significant confidants” and more likely to be involved in local voluntary organizations and to have more racially diverse social networks than are demographically similar nonusers.

The lead researcher of that 2009 study, Dr. Keith N. Hampton of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, said in a statement, “All the evidence points in one direction. People’s social worlds are enhanced by new communication technologies. It is a mistake to believe that Internet use and mobile phones plunge people into a spiral of isolation.”

Look, we’ve heard tragic stories of suicides, idiotic stories of kids (and adults) sexting or otherwise compromising themselves online. And don’t even get me started on how the ease of Internet porn is pernicious.

Understood.

I’m just saying that as a mom I know my children are quite capable of eye-rolling at me or ignoring me even without regular smartphone use.

So by all means, let’s be wise about our kids and their social-networking activities, let’s make sure we have their passwords, talk to them about the permanency of everything that goes online and have them drop the phones in the basket before dinner and bed.

I fully admit that I’ve got some things to work on there with my kids! But rather than fearing smartphones and their “toxicity,” I prefer to spend my energy trying to teach good manners, self-respect and respect for others, and that my children can enjoy and master, not be mastered by, that device in the palm of their hands.

Reach Betsy Hart at www.betsysblog.com.

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