How Do You Solve a Problem Like Apple?

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By Zaynab Sanogo | January 26, 2018 As a self-described social media junkie, I decided in late December that my New Years’ Resolution for 2018 was to spend less time using social media. In the weeks leading up to the new year, I’d noticed social media's effects on my own wellbeing, not to mention that of my friends. I was realizing more and more that when my friends and I hung out, we spent much more time on our phones than we did speaking with one another.

I was jaded, to say the least, so at the beginning of the New Year, I took a self-prescribed break from social media. One January afternoon, I deleted all of the apps from my phone and decided that I’d rely solely on music to entertain me during my 15 minute commute each morning. Perhaps doing so was foolhardy, but I had somehow convinced myself that my compulsive attraction to social media was something only surface level. I thought that with just deleting Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, I would manage to outmaneuver my own brain and subvert social media’s proven psychological consequences.

I quickly realized, though, that my expectations were unrealistic. Within two weeks, I succumbed to social media’s influence again. During my “break,” I found myself increasingly unhappy, as though I was somehow missing out. I was suddenly anxious and unable to sleep. My greatest trouble during this time, however, was boredom. I spent less time looking at memes on Instagram and checking Twitter for political perspectives and more time listening to songs I’d heard a thousand times and checking the news for California mudslide updates. Needless to say, these forms of entertainment were insufficient. My boredom prevailed, and soon I found myself using the App Store to re-download my favorite apps. Was it possible that just “turning it off ” wasn’t a realistic solution?

While I mired in self-disappointment, I decided to engage in some introspection. I wondered what specifically about social media makes it so necessary for my life. What are we—myself and my peers—getting from Instagram and Snapchat that we aren’t getting elsewhere?

Reading Dr. Jean Twenge’s iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood – and What That Means for the Rest of Us reinforced my suspicion that my “iProblem” is an “iProblem” that many teens are navigating. In her book, Twenge explains that the generation of kids born between 1995 and 2012, which she calls “iGen,” has never known a life that did not depend largely on smartphone technology. While it’s hard to prove direct causality, Twenge reports that today’s teens and young adults are more depressed, more anxious, and lonelier than ever before. My generation, it seems, is on the verge of a mental health crisis.

After considering Twenge’s findings, I found myself focused on the why of this phenomenon. I wanted to know why, in a country where we supposedly value family time and face-to-face contact, people seem to care more about their phones than the people in front of them. Reflecting on my own experiences with social media, I came to realize that widespread use of these apps could be ascribed largely to the recent downtrend of recreational “safe spaces” that teens can escape to without constant supervision from their parents.

There are practical reasons for why many teens tend toward social media rather than “traditional”  methods of leisure. Not that I disagree with any of these policies, but tighter curfew laws and harsher underage drinking laws have made it incontestably more difficult for teens to “hang out” in the same way that previous generations did. What roller rinks and drive-ins were for my parents and their friends is what social media is for me and mine. Companies like Apple took advantage of an already dwindling market. The advantage that smartphones hold over real-life hangout spaces is that they don’t close at 11 PM (in time for curfew). Smartphones won’t ask you for your ID, or turn you away at the door. What iGenners find through their phone is virtually unlimited access to 24/7 entertainment and recreation. The prospect of a replacement to conventional recreation was exciting, relatively cheap, and majorly accessible. Who could really blame us?

In addition to the lack of hangout spots, the number of households with both parents employed is at an all-time high, and there are similarly high employment figures for single families. Consequently, kids are spending less time with their parents. What smartphone and social media companies did was exploit a social crisis—kids having less family time and fewer social opportunities—by offering a seemingly innocuous panacea. Young people were experiencing what seemed like a disintegration of the classically American teen experience, and companies like Apple struck back. Inevitably, kids turned to smartphones because they felt alone (and literally were), and the technology to make them think they were less alone was readily available.

While I do believe that Apple owes it to their millions of teenage patrons to explore the effects of their products on mental health, I do not believe that it is fair to paint tech giants as the sole and exclusive architects of the undoing of American teendom. What needs to occur is a diversification of recreation: teens are limited these days when it comes to these things. Open up the roller rinks! Let us go to the movies! Sit down for dinner with us! For the mental health crisis Twenge describes to be resolved, we must acknowledge and accept its root causes. Turning off our phones is just a start.

Zaynab Sonogo is a junior at the Germantown Friends School and has been an intern for The Michael Smerconish Show for the last month.