Designing the Smartphone for the Smartphone Generation

A few weeks ago I came across this distressing article, written by psychology professor Jean M. Twenge for The Atlantic, about the impact of the smartphone on the current generation of users – one that has little to no recollection of life before the iPhone.

I implore you deeply to read this article in full. It summarizes her body of research into the matter, spanning decades (she drew comparisons between today’s and previous generations), and observations she took regarding things like socialization and parental interaction, to more pressing issues like depression and suicide.

Throughout the article, she emphasizes how convinced she is of the causal relationship between smartphone usage and behavior in young children and teens. She’s also evidently unnerved by how stark these changes in behavior are. She elaborates:

Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs, and many of the distinctive characteristics of the Millennial generation began to disappear. In all my analyses of generational data—some reaching back to the 1930s—I had never seen anything like it…

The more I pored over yearly surveys of teen attitudes and behaviors, and the more I talked with young people like Athena, the clearer it became that theirs is a generation shaped by the smartphone and by the concomitant rise of social media.

Another pressing observation:

The advent of the smartphone and its cousin the tablet was followed quickly by hand-wringing about the deleterious effects of “screen time.” But the impact of these devices has not been fully appreciated…

It might take hindsight – probably from as far as decades into the future – to have that sort of appreciation, or at least for these changes to be universally acknowledged. But I think these changes are so prevalent that it’s not even necessary anymore. Look around any public space and you might see that notorious red dot on the bottom of someone’s phone screen. Even simply understanding what a smartphone is – an ultra-accessible, ultra-fast portal to all the world’s information, right in the palm of your hand – makes it apparent how regular usage of the device is conducive to such behaviors.

It got me thinking that smartphone companies should have some sort of social responsibility to design future updates to phones with these considerations in mind – perhaps even having these at the forefront of the decision-making processes.