Hanging on the telephone

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There was an episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation years ago in which a game took over the entire crew of the Enterprise. Once people put a headset on, their eyes were hit by a beam that resulted in them becoming addicted to the game and neglecting their duties. It was an addiction that slowly took over everyone. Now, there’s a slight difference between a habit and an addiction (people used to have a “drug habit”, now we know it’s an addiction). 

So, when the news came last week that the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board and three school boards in the Toronto-area have launched legal action seeking $4.5 billion in damages against the owners of Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat and TikTok, it was a major event on use of technology.

We all know how much the use of cell phones has become ubiquitous among young people, and the not so young too. As social media has taken over the lives of so many in our society today, it is normal now to see people take out their phones every time they sit down for a meal, a meeting, or on the bus. People get panic attacks when they think they’ve lost their phone, or even left it at home when they go out. This has gone beyond a habit and developed into genuine addiction.

But the lawsuit by the school boards has underlined the extent to which this addiction has impacted the lives of young people across the world, not just in Ontario. The damage to the minds and behaviour of young people was emphasised by the boards: “The lawsuit claims that social media products, negligently designed for compulsive use, have rewired the way children think, behave, and learn, leaving educators and schools to manage the fallout,” the boards said in a statement. “Students are experiencing an attention, learning and mental health crisis because of prolific and compulsive use of social media products.”

Because use of social media in schools is compulsory, because of the perceived benefits it brings to education in the classroom, the school boards claim that this is costing them financially, and are collectively seeking $4 billion in damages. But the main argument is that the media giants are intentionally designing “software platforms that are purposefully created to encourage compulsive use”. The boards claim that 90% of Grades 7-12 students in Ottawa’s public school board use social media over five hours a day.

Parents can’t really complain about it, because they are the ones giving their kids cell phones at a ridiculously early age. They prevent school boards from implementing restrictions on cell phone use in schools, and indulge their offspring in their addictive behaviour. Young people like “hanging” with their friends; but when they get together, they’re usually hanging on the cell phone”, not always engaging person to person. How can the problem be addressed?

Whether the lawsuit is successful or not is yet to be determined,  but it has to be asked: if this is the damage being done to our young people by such an excessive use of social media, how much are adults being damaged by their addiction to their cell phones and social media wherever they go? If, as the lawsuit claims, these companies are producing “software platforms that are purposefully created to encourage compulsive use”, the effect is not confined to young people. We already know how the algorithms used by social media platforms direct users to sites they want them to visit, rather than ones chosen by the users. The effects of social media on politics, social disruption, conspiracy nuts, and others is only too well known, and the addictive nature of the medium exacerbates the danger. Social media use, particularly through cell phones, has created a huge problem for society. Call it a habit, but it is clearly more than that: it is addictive behaviour. Try taking cell phones away, and see how extreme the reaction can be. It has gone past the point where people will easily change their attitude and behaviour, so can anything be done, with or without lawsuits?

There is one potentially positive example where such addiction has been countered. Twenty years ago this month, Ireland was the first country in the world to ban smoking in the workplace and in public buildings. In spite of predictions of disaster for pubs, and widespread public rebellion, the new laws were not only successful, but welcomed. Other countries followed suit, and today it is simply unacceptable to find people smoking inside public places or at work. Tobacco is a seriously addictive drug and its effect on health was ultimately proven.

Cell phones may not have the same physical dangers to people’s health, but there can be no questioning the psychological and social threat they pose. Can we find ways to stop people hanging on the telephone, and just hang up?

1 COMMENT

  1. It might be healthier to adapt in this case rather than stopping. Some electronic device will be with us for a long time until we unlock other parts of our brains tht allow for remote thinking.

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