Is Social Media The New Tobacco?


Instagram, Snapchat and others have a business model based on addiction. This is not how we want to be raising our children.

I’ll admit I was a slow-follower when the iPhone launched ten years ago. I was suspicious of Apple’s intent — I was not fan of its closed, vertically integrated model — and the market’s infatuation with apps felt like a fad that would ultimately fade. When I finally did get an iPhone, I felt complicit in the what amounted to internet climate change: slowly but surely, our new addictions were bound to swamp all that we had worked so hard to build on the open web. As Tristan Harris and many others have pointed out, the economic incentives driving our mobile landscape (in short: advertising) are based fundamentally on the science of addiction, and addicted we certainly are.

And as we’ve learned from tobacco and processed foods, an industry based on addiction preys on the young.

In what I hope will be a landmark piece in the Atlantic, social scientist Jean M. Twenge, who has studied generational differences for decades, concludes that the first generation of teenagers to grow up with a smartphone in their hands is demonstrating wildly different patterns from any group she’s previously researched. And those patterns are not good.

Three out of four American teenagers own a smartphone, and they grew up with an entirely new kind of social topography: They live their lives on Snapchat and Instagram, in a kind of social purgatory where their adolescent brains — so eager for validation and approval — are constantly inflamed by the drama of the now. Anyone with teenage children understands this drama, but when it’s conducted on a stage free of adult role models, the result looks an awful lot like the Lord of the Flies.

If you are constantly in the thrall of the high-octane drug known as social approval, you’re far more likely to be depressed. “Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011,” Twenge writes, coining the cringeworthy term “iGen” to describe today’s young teenagers. “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

She continues: “The twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives — and making them seriously unhappy.”

As our teenagers retreat into their phones, they are also retreating from the world, going out less than any generation before them, dating less, engaging with other generations less, working less (the ad-driven apps are free, after all), shunning drivers licenses, staying in their rooms, and substituting being in the world with “talking” via their apps.

If I might add my own editorial voice to this, my own family has been deeply affected by this trend, and it’s been serious work to find a way around it. My kids range in age from 21 to 13, but it’s the youngest, the only member of Twenge’s “iGen,” who’s borne the brunt of this shift. We’ve had to respond with aggressive new approaches to parenting and family communication — imposing rules that our daughter feels are unjustly out of step with her community of friends. It’s a lot more work to enforce these rules (perhaps I’ll write about them here another time), but we’re certain they’re necessary. Twenge’s piece is welcome validation of our long-held suspicion: We’re well over our skis when it comes to understanding the impact of smartphones and social media on our kids.

It’s time for the companies driving that impact to take responsibility for the destructive nature of their business models. If sugar is the new tobacco, then Instagram and Snapchat may well be the new sugar.

Challenges Beyond the Glass Ceiling

A New York Times special report on women executives yields plenty of depressing statistics: Despite steady progress on corporate boards, women represent just five percent of CEOs in the S&P 500, and that number is not growing. In addition, more than 20 percent of companies on the Russell 2000 have no women on their board. Women are more likely to be promoted to the top job if a company is in trouble, but when they get there, they are also more likely to get tossed or draw challenges from activist shareholders. That’s what happened at Mondelez, Yahoo!, and Avon, as well as PepsiCo and others. A recent study found that overall, female CEOs are 34 percent more likely to be targeted by activists, compared to their male counterparts. Is it due to gender bias? It certainly appears that way.

As Goes The Laundry, So Goes Our Cities

The gentrification of our city centers is claiming yet another victim, reports the Atlantic. For decades laundromats have been centers of urban community, but skyrocketing real estate costs and an influx of well-off city dwellers demanding in-house washer-dryers have lowered revenues by a third or more. Once fixtures of American life, laundromats are increasingly being converted into high-end restaurants, apartment buildings, and bars.

Related: A Quartz report on how the coming automation of trucking will kill yet another American icon — the truck stop and its related businesses.

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