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Debra Ollivier Headshot

Smart Phones: Do They Make Your Kid -- And You -- Stupid?

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My 16-year-old son is dying for a smart phone. He has a flip phone that he thinks is the equivalent of communicating on a stone tablet. The peer pressure to get a smart phone is intense. Of course, getting one isn't about having a more convenient way of making a phone call. It's about having a fully-loaded, handheld portal to a 24/7 downloadable universe of instant entertainment and distraction. Which is why I'm holding out.

Before digital enthusiasts and assorted flame-throwers lobby accusations of Ludditism, consider this: My son has a fully-loaded computer at home with nearly every graphics software known to humankind. He spends hours on Facebook, Skype, Google Voice, iChat, and YouTube. He walks around with iPod earbuds blaring Skrillex into his cochlea. He jerry-rigged the Kindle I gave him ("I'll read more books, mom, I swear!") so he could secretly play games and Google chat with it late at night (who knew?). Getting him a smart phone is like giving a bong to a pothead. And getting him offline, into the real 3-D world where homework is due and chores must be done, is a constant battle.

In this fight, I am not alone. Every day, similar online wars prevail in millions of households all over the world. (What parent could not watch with morbid fascination the now-infamous clip of the North Carolina father shooting his daughter's laptop? According to ABC -- and despite the remonstrations of Dr. Phil and others with whom I essentially agree -- 73 percent of the 120,000 people polled online by ABC felt this laptop sniping was appropriate punishment. (Presumably, the remaining 27 percent got a vicarious thrill.)

My son is sure that smart phones will make you smarter. I beg to differ -- and that's whether you're 16 or 60. For starters, it's not as if my son were living in a cabin the woods. He lives in L.A. and has tons of smart gear, including a drum set with percussive accessories that have overrun our home. He has plenty of things to do, both of the high and low culture variety. He can program 3-D universes and record great original stuff on his computer. And I encourage it. But I become an angry bird when he obsessively plays Angry Bird (on someone else's smart phone). Why?

My problem is that giving him access to a smart phone will clog the portal to the offline world. It will not only up the ante on the battles to get him in the Here And Now at home; it will diminish his capacity for boredom, which shares, in my mind at least, a common border with reverie.

I'm concerned about his constant feasting on distraction, which fits hand-in-glove with his constant curating of himself on his Facebook (personal branding knows no age limits). He has a multitude of distractions at home -- the same ones he'd get on a smart phone. Does he need access to them in the car, at school (you know they sneak in those texts during English class), during breaks, at the dinner table (if only) and at night when he's supposed to sleep?

I felt vindicated the other day when I read a recent New York Times piece "A Hardy Group Holds Out On Smart Phones" written by Teddy Wayne. Wayne cites Nicholas Carr, author of "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains." Carr argues that while constant online grazing might make us more adept at multi-tasking, it "diminishes the ability to sustain focus and think interpretatively."

In addition to other professionals who've opted for "dumb" phones in an effort to stay smart, Wayne cites author Jonathan Safran Foer, who ditched his smart phone for an old-fashioned flip phone after he found himself "'checking my phone while giving my kids a bath.'" When asked if not having a smartphone increased his productivity and attentiveness while writing, Foer replied, "Without a doubt and dramatically." Productive guy.

Similar sentiments were expressed in a published PEN conversation between authors Jonathan Lethem and David Gates. Lethem, grappling with the tyrannies of social media and Facebook (the latter of which he uses under a pseudonym and regards as "a kind of vast fiction"), asked Gates why he wasn't on Facebook. After a few ruminations, Gates replied: "And why in God's name would I be on Facebook?"

Gates has a cellphone and relies heavily on Google, but told Lethem that in addition to not wanting to provide information "for the advertisers and marketers for whose benefit Facebook seems ultimately designed," he does not "feel an urge to tell the world at large what I'm doing or thinking." Added Gates: "I don't get why people voluntarily present themselves for online inspection. Sure, fine, okay, it's not really 'themselves' they're presenting, but rather some constructed 'self.' Don't we do enough of that when we're offline?"

Writers who are too busy offline and can't be bothered generally outsource the management of their Facebook presence to third-party social media curators (a burgeoning business). For other writers -- not to mention professionals in an array of other fields -- the digital world is a bonafide occupational and time-management hazard. Never mind finding the time to participate in the teeming universe of social media; the mind can only take so much clutter before, like molasses, it slows down.

Of course many people don't like people who don't use Facebook. They also don't like people who don't use smart phones. "In certain social strata," Wayne writes, "to not own one is the mark of an outsider." As is often the case, there may come a time in this arena when being an outsider is cool again and the pendulum swings the other way. (My 11 year-old daughter loves the retro Moshi handset she can plug into her cell phone. Soon enough, though, she'll probably be begging for a smart phone. Some of her friends got them when they were in elementary school.) Until then, the digital and analog worlds will continue to co-exist, hopefully in a pleasant way.

Back to my son, I don't want him to become like an associate's son, who told me that on a recent trip to Europe he didn't take in the scenery because he was too busy texting. I couldn't figure out if he was being ironic or boasting. Since the young are often irony-challenged, I assumed the latter. Speaking of irony, it's ironic to be waxing about this subject as a contributor to this site (and one who owns two cell phones and a Kindle), but, hey, modern life is filled with irony.

In the end, I know that resisting a smart phone is a little like putting your pinky finger on a damn that's about to burst. Eventually, the sheer heft of my son's prodding will wear me down and I'll capitulate. For now, however, I'm still holding out. The other day I revoked all computer access because he'd screwed up with his homework and had already spent hours online. "I don't have anything to do," he lamented, as if I'd banished him to a domestic gulag. Finally, still pissed off, he ambled away, picked up his guitar, and started plunking out a riff.