Matthew Hennessey is a missionary from Generation X with a message to Millennials: put down the smartphones. In his book, Zero Hour for Gen X: How the Last Adult Generation Can Save America from Millennials, he lays out the case against smartphones:
Perhaps we needed some distance to appreciate it, but the telephone and the television did reinforce the benefits of patience. It was their prime virtue apart from keeping us entertained, informed, and connected. You wanted to see what happened to Scully and Mulder in the next episode of The X-Files, so you put it on your calendar and turned on the TV at the appointed time. Someone said they would call at 7:30, so you cleared a block of time to chat with them at 7:30. You sent someone a letter; you waited for a reply. Sometimes you waited a long time — a really long time. Like children opting to forgo a single marshmallow now for two marshmallows later, you knew that the waiting was good for you. Good things come to those who wait.
The constant waiting cultivated in young people an inherent understanding that media consumption was in some sense a reward for a day spent productively. You got your homework done before The Cosby Show came on. You called your friends when the dishes were put away. You went down in the basement and sat on the rug and listened to your records after you cut the grass. Work first; then play. This, then the other. Of course, not everyone did it this way. In some homes the television was on all day. In some homes there was no television. But, in the main, the technology that was both available and widespread was treated as a tool. You used it. It didn’t use you.
Nowadays, with the Internet in our pockets, the concept of media consumption as a bit of recreation after the business of the day is done is as dated as the TV shows I namechecked in the previous paragraphs. For many of us, media — by which I mean use of any device with a screen — is the oxygen we breathe. We need it everywhere. We can’t work, play, or relax without it. Actually, it turns out that after two decades of the Internet and a decade of smartphones, we can’t even think without it.
Not only are smartphones eroding the distinction between work and reward, they are demolishing our attention spans:
A Canadian study showed that while the average human attention span was twelve seconds in 2000, nearly 20 years of Internet influence has pushed that down to eight seconds. We are all losing our ability to sustain concentration. We’re letting our focus slip, and we’ve all gone voluntarily down this path. It’s a problem if, like me, you’re in middle age, but at least a guy like me can search for solutions to the problem with the full knowledge of how things used to be — how much easier it was in the pre-Internet days to settle down with a book without thinking about your phone, or to be alone with yourself (or your family) for a few hours. If you are a high-school student in the late second decade of the 21st century — or the parent of such a child — this is not just a problem; it’s a crisis. A high-school English teacher told me recently that she watches in amazement as her students Google basic facts and information that once formed the mere minimum of what a person should know by the time he or she reached adolescence. Things are going downhill fast.