Helping Teens Outsmart Their Smartphones (Part 2)

According to the stereotype, teens do not like being told what to do, and they most certainly do not want to be manipulated. Wise parents will leverage this fact to help their teens understand how their smartphones manipulate them.

The verb “manipulate” originally meant to mold with the hands (from the Latin manus, ‘hand’). In its literal sense, every act of making something is manipulation. We manufacture technology by manipulating the earth’s resources (transforming wood, marble, iron ore, oil, etc.). When it is applied to people, “manipulate” takes on a less literal but more negative meaning. We do not use our hands to manipulate people, since we’re not molding their bodies but their souls; we’re changing the way they think, feel, desire, and behave.

This does not explain what is wrong with manipulating people. Some say that the offense is in the manipulator’s aim of getting others to do something for himself. This cannot be right. Is a father “manipulating” a child, or a boss an employee, by simply asking for help in accomplishing a self-interested goal? And is it not possible to manipulate someone into doing something for his good?

Manipulation has less to do with the end in view and more with how the end is achieved. To manipulate a man into doing something is to bypass his intelligence, such that he is not giving full rational consent to what he is being led to do. We cannot be accused of manipulation if we are trying to help people understand for themselves why they should do something.

Manipulation is appropriate when dealing with very young children, who are not ready to follow out and evaluate our reasoning. As the child’s mind grows, however, he instinctively wants to take ownership of his beliefs and practices. God has designed adolescents with the desire to understand why. For some teens, sadly, their loves seem too disordered to receive wise counsel; there is not enough good soil in their souls for sound reasoning to take root. We feel compelled to manipulate them. (What else can we do?) For teens more receptive to the voice of reason, we should make every effort to help them understand our reasons.

To that end, we need to persuade our youth that they are being manipulated by their tech. They need to understand that their smartphones, for example, are designed to hook them, to control them, to mold their thoughts, feelings, desires, and behaviors, and to do so in all sorts of sub-rational ways (e.g., algorithms for customizing content on YouTube and for regimenting “likes” in doses meant to keep the user coming back). More basically, the tech tends to weaken their critical thinking and their ability to identify and resist manipulation. It conditions the mind against concentration, reflection, and the habits of semantic analysis, logical inference, and the evaluation of evidence.

I wake up in cold sweats every so often thinking, “What did we bring into the world?” — Tony Fadell, former Senior VP at Apple

The manipulative power of technology is so great, in fact, that it has outstripped the goals and foreseen outcomes of its creators. In an oft-cited quote, Tony Fadell, the former Senior VP at Apple, confessed, “I wake up in cold sweats every so often thinking, ‘What did we bring into the world?’” The architects of the smartphone were not trying to promote teen anxiety, depression, and suicide. But they did. They were not trying to promote a generation of dumbed-down, inarticulate, noncommunicative, and socially inept youth. But they did. Like everything else, our technology is subject to the law of unintended consequences.

You see, we make tools, but our tools also make us. We manipulate the earth’s resources to make bombs, cars, televisions, phones, and so on, but every single one of these technologies turns around to manipulate us. Before the invention of the pocket watch, people did not stress out about meeting others at “a quarter past ten.” (Think about that “for a second.”) Before radio and television, people read and reflected and conversed more. With the advent of the air conditioner, the southern “porch culture” almost went extinct. In our age of ultra-realistic video games, kids rarely ride their bikes or play ball in the streets. Examples of tech-driven changes to our souls and society are easily observed. They all show that, though we make tools, our tools always seem to turn around and make us, or rather, manipulate us.

So, if our teens hate being manipulated—indeed, if we hate being manipulated—then we all need to take a step back, unplug for a bit, and begin to understand what is happening to us.

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything.
1 Corinthians 6:12

Don’t miss Brad Finkbeiner’s previous social technology post here.