It always struck me as odd that Bill gates, Tim Cook, and Steve Jobs put significant restrictions on the amount of technology that their children used. What did they know, ten years ago, that we didn’t?

Did you know that the average North American teenager spends around nine hours per day on their mobile device?  High mobile phone usage has been shown to be harmful and social media giants have used addiction psychology to perpetuate overuse despite the troubling outcomes for some. Teen’s today are plugged into a screen for one third of their day. I have yet to hear a sound (or even just valid) argument about how interfacing so much of our lives through just this medium will lead to a better life.

The Social Generation

I am arriving at the conclusion, after speaking with many CEOs, HR executives, and parents, that many “successful” people have lowered their expectations of upcoming generations, including the millennials and the ‘social’ generation. It appears to me that today’s socioeconomic leadership expects upcoming generations will be less interpersonally adept, less resilient, and probably less able to cope with real world problems.

The position that future generations are becoming less and less able to build and keep meaningful lives because of their device dependency is counter-intuitive to me. I would argue that the depth and array of experience that we face is the most important factor in helping us develop interpersonal skill and resilience. Who are we to argue what, exactly, that experience needs to look like? Can we gain much, really, from a debate about which generational social norm is better for youth: an aristocratic dance wherein girls and boys occupy exclusive sides of the floor only to meet for a prescribed waltz, verses a group chat on WhatsApp wherein girls and boys compete with their thumbs to know one another through a cacophony of image-based and grammatically incorrect texting? 

Technology Time Caps and Use Preferences

Its true: general mobile phone use is reaching levels we could not have anticipated. And that overuse is causing problems for some, no question. Yet, it seems to me that few of us consider the possibility that we are reaching a maximum usage capacity. Really, how much more time can one really spend on his/her phone? The average teen is only awake for 12 hours of the day. Could we see the average usage go up to 10, 11 or even 12 hours a day? Are we really anticipating that youth will be on their devices every waking moment? Possibly, but not probably.

My intuition is that there will be continued push back on the time and ways devices are used. As you may know, some of the world’s largest tech companies have already taken steps towards promoting digital wellness. Between the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), the low-tech parenting movement, and inevitable regulation of social media using addictive tactics, we may see a healthy reduction in screen time. In addition, it’s likely that we will understand more of the deeply meaningful ways in which youth are actively choosing to use and support device applications like, say, health monitoring with FitBit or social networking with Skout or LinkedIn, which facilitate quicker connection and more in-person meetings.

Where Does this Leave Us?

So, what is actually happening to the ‘social’ generation? If we posit simply that they are attached and forever addicted to their cell phones, then, sure, their prospects may not be good. But, we should dig a bit deeper into our analysis.

What are youth talking about on their devices? What are youth doing on their devices? Sure, posting pictures seems to be a preoccupation of theirs (and, really, everyone’s). But, aren’t they also creating beautiful art? And doesn’t this contribute to our collective conversation about what matters? Doesn’t it also demonstrate their efforts, using today’s tools, to understand and support healthy living? Here’s an example, where a social influencer wisely highlights in the caption that “It’s easier to talk to a fake flower than a fake person”: 

If anything is being ‘lost’ by today’s youth it is the 3D exposure to a diverse range of people across a wide spectrum of scenarios. Learning to deal with the anxiety and awkwardness of meeting somebody new in person – with no “close” button for that experience. The opportunity to think on your feet in challenging social circumstances, appears to be under threat. 

Healthy Social Learning

In my view, one of the strongest ways to develop ourselves is nearly unrestricted exposure to as many interpersonal scenarios as possible. This should include: talking to somebody you find attractive, leveling with somebody with whom you disagree, negotiating respectfully with somebody who is in a position of power, working with somebody over whom you have power, and learning how to deal with a troll on Instagram.

Fortunately, young people, just like the rest of us, are finding ways to use mobile tools to further their interests, navigate life’s challenges and learn more about or achieve more of what matters. I think youth agree that there is no greater skill that one can employ and hone than the ability to listen, empathize, and understand people. Luckily, conversations that include these key elements aren’t precluded by devices. 

For those of us who are able to balance or supplement their cell phone use with a diverse range of 3D interaction in unique and challenging settings, life will be bright. I think that young people who emphasize their interpersonal abilities, who take time to foster non-digital relationships, who seek face to face conversation, AND maximize the tools of mobile, will have endless potential. Maybe this is what Bill Gates, Tim Cook, and Steve Jobs were imparting to their children. The good life, if any of us is to achieve it, must include a broad range of unique experience with diverse people, not only using the technology that is available, but using the very thing that first made us human, conversation.

Dr. Ryan Todd is a medical psychiatrist and the CEO of MacroMind Media, the parent company of headversity. Dr. Todd has seen and treated thousands of individuals who have a mental illness as a result of trauma, medical or surgical illness. Dr. Todd believes mental wellness can be learned and practiced.


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