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Getting lost in a smartphone

Just before Rosh Hashanah I drove over to the BBC studios in Manhattan. I had been invited to write and record a program to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the launch of the BBC’s four national radio stations in 1967, Radios One, Two, Three and Four.

Radio One broadcasts pop music. It was set up to combat the hugely successful pirate radio stations that were broadcasting pop music at a time when pop was conquering the world. It was in 1967, after all, that the Beatles released their groundbreaking “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album. The rest, as they say, is history.


At the same time the BBC decided that its radio output needed a complete makeover and so Radio 2 broadcast music that catered to my parents’ generation – Big Band standards from Glenn Miller and the like. Radio Three became the classical music station. But the best station of all was – and is – Radio 4. With its mixture of news, documentaries, plays, and comedy programs, it remains the best talk radio station in the world.

Radio is still huge in the UK. Think of the golden age of American radioroughly from 1930 through the 1940s – when the medium of commercial broadcast radio grew into the fabric of daily life in the United States, providing news and entertainment from cultural icons such as Edward Murrow and George Burns and Gracie Allen – and you’ll get the idea.

Hard as it is to imagine, one of the radio shows I used to appear on weekly had an audience of twenty million, which is a third of the entire population of the UK!

Reminiscing about radio in that BBC studio in Manhattan allowed me to travel back to when I first fell in love with what used to be called “the wireless.”

The year 1967 marked the stage of my transition from childhood to pimpled adolescence. The music of the Beatles and other bands was coming out of radios everywhere.

After I got over the very worst of my teenage years, (I don’t think my parents ever did), it was off to university and life in a lonely and depressing single-room student apartment. And I think I actually did become a little depressed, until I stumbled across Radio 4.

I laughed at the comedy programs, sat glued to the BBC’s production of “Lord of the Rings,” and learned more from the factual programs than I ever did from the lectures I “occasionally” attended.

My radio became truly a good friend.

The next chapter of my life found me attached as always to Radios One, Two, Three, and Four. The fact that I got the chance to appear on some of those stations was a surprise and a complete delight.

A few years ago I moved to New York – and of course One, Two, Three and Four came with me, thanks to a useful phone app.

If I’m being really honest, Radio 1 has been replaced by Radio 3 but they’re still all very old and valued friends.

* * * * *

Recently, I came upon research about today’s teenagers – the first generation to have grown up with smartphones – that is really quite alarming.

Jean Twenge, an American psychologist researching generational differences, is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University. In the September 2017 issue of The Atlantic, Twenge argued that smartphones were the most likely cause of the sudden epidemic in mental health issues among teens since 2012.

She wrote:

I’ve been researching generational differences for 25 years. Typically, the characteristics that come to define a generation appear gradually.

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. In all my analyses of generational data – some reaching back to the 1930s – I had never seen anything like it.

She refers to the so-called iGen, whose members, born between 1995 and 2012, comprise the first generation to grow up with smartphones and iPhones. A 2017 survey of more than 5,000 American teens found that three out of four owned an iPhone.

Psychologically, they are much more vulnerable than the “Millennials,” the generation that immediately preceded them. Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed in the past half-decade.

“It’s not an exaggeration,” says Twenge, “to describe the iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades.”

Other figures suggest the iGen is in fact doing much better than its predecessors. They are less likely to suffer from alcohol-related problems, be involved in car accidents, and have unwanted pregnancies. But the figures are deceptive. All those problems are usually dependent on interaction with other teenagers and that is what the IGen fails at – spectacularly.

Those little screens of the iPhone and the slightly larger versions of the iPad suck today’s kids into the Internet, where they can see anyone and travel anywhere. Yet in reality they tend to do that at home, lying on their beds and all alone.

With the entire pixilated world at their fingertips, they are nevertheless as alone and cut off as I was in that tiny student apartment all those years ago.

Unsurprisingly, iGenners are more prone to depression and mental illness. They’re less proficient at making friends and they lack social skills. The “world at your fingertips” isn’t a friendly radio; it doesn’t talk to you.

For the sake of our mental health, we need other people who make us laugh and tell us stories and share information.

In June 2015 I was invited by an organization called TAG (Technology Awareness Group) to lecture at an event in Passaic, New Jersey.

The topic was not the dangers of pornography or the other disturbing content so ubiquitous across the Internet. Instead, it was about the simple dangers to people’s personalities and mental acuity caused by falling through the looking glass of a smartphone.

I certainly was aware of the research showing reduced attention spans caused by the amount of time people take off from the real world in order to immerse themselves in cyberworld. When I used to teach at Manchester University in the UK, the declining attention spans of students was a recurring topic of conversation among lecturers even then.

But like Professor Twenge, the more I researched the subject for the lecture I was to give in Passaic, the more worried and upset I became.

There is plenty of evidence from around the world of the terrible damage to the emotional and psychological development of abandoned babies in overworked orphanages who are not held and cuddled.

Adult prisoners held in solitary confinement similarly suffer profound damage and even insanity when they are deprived of human contact and society. Human beings need interpersonal contact. Smartphones and iPhones deny them it.

Even when iGenners are ostensibly together in school or college settings, they aren’t. Pictures of young people sitting together, even on dates, completely absorbed in texting, shows how far apart people who are near each other have actually become.

When smartphones burst onto the scene, some rabbis condemned them and attempted to limit their use. Others banned them altogether. Often they were criticized for their alleged shortsightedness and backward worldview. Now they aren’t looking quite so shortsighted after all.


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Rabbi YY Rubinstein is a popular lecturer, a regular broadcaster on BBC National TV and Radio, and the author of 10 books (including, most recently, “Jewish Life and Jewish Laughter”).