Have smartphones soured Americans on America?

Have smartphones soured Americans on America?
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Today, an estimated 95 percent of North Americans have internet access and information is doubling every 12 months. The world should be experiencing a new Enlightenment, but we may be heading in the opposite direction.

A June 2018 survey by Pew Research, measuring the public’s ability to distinguish between five factual statements and five opinion statements, found that “a majority of Americans correctly identified at least three of the five statements in each set. But this result is only a little better than random guesses.”  In this study, 28 percent of adults identified two or fewer factual statements and 22 percent, two or fewer opinion statements.

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San Diego University psychology professor Jean M. Twenge noted in a 2017 article in The Atlantic, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” that, “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. … It was exactly the moment when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent.” The social findings included not hanging out with friends; no rush to learn to drive; less dating; and increased loneliness.

Technology addiction “will increase as technology continues to advance and application, game and gadget developers find new ways to ensure users’ long-term engagement with technology,” cautions Isaac Vaghefi, assistant professor of management information systems at Binghamton University-State University of New York.

Smartphones have given us the ability to self-segregate and interact only with like-minded  people. This may help to explain, in part, why our politics have coarsened and real political debate quickly devolves into anger and name-calling.

In 2017, Pew reported, “The gap between the political values of Democrats and Republicans is now larger than at any point in Pew Research Center surveys dating back to 1994.” The researchers noted that, “Overall, although many Americans continue to hold a mix of liberal and conservative views across different issue areas, that share has declined over time.”   

Have our political beliefs become tribal? Today, if you are conservative or liberal, you have your own television networks, newspapers, magazines, blogs, podcasts, media watchdogs, foundations, opinion research, authors, thought leaders and benefactors. Pew found that 85 percent of New York Times readers believe in news from trusted sources, as do 84 percent of Rush Limbaugh listeners.

Technology has created an infrastructure that insulates ideas while protecting those deemed important. Scientists who question the orthodoxy of climate change are labeled “deniers” in a context approaching religious zealotry. Political discussion on immigration quickly devolves to racist, sexist, Fascist, Nazi or even Hitler invectives. Today’s political belief structures are not built to withstand scrutiny. Rather, they are being erected to embrace conformity.

A six-year study of over 360 million Facebook users and interactions with news media concluded, “Despite the wide availability of content and heterogeneous narratives, there is major  segregation and growing polarization in online news consumption.” Similarly, a study of more than 2.7 billion tweets, from 2009 to 2016, confirmed that Twitter users see mainly political opinions that agree with their own, noting, “The findings indicate a strong correlation between biases in the content people both produce and consume. In other words, echo chambers are very real on Twitter.”    

And then there is the fake news. “Facebook, Google and Twitter function as a distribution mechanism, a platform for circulating false information and helping find receptive audiences,” says Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College. This has forced media to take sides to gain market share: MSNBC is dependably liberal and FOX conservative, for example.   

Today, most Americans can access much of the information humankind has ever produced on a smartphone. Add to this the fact that 66.7 percent of 2017 high school graduates, ages 16-24, were enrolled in colleges or universities in October 2017. So, you would think that we would find ourselves entering a new Age of Reason.  

Instead, we find ourselves a culture being shaped in echo chambers, stunted by closed-mindedness and unwilling to learn from each other. Has smartphone technology helped to dumb down America? You decide.

Dennis M. Powell is founder and president of Massey Powell, a national public affairs consultancy headquartered in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania. He has been involved in more than 300 political campaigns doing strategy, messaging, polling, and fundraising.