The history of blaming the media for the ills of adolescents, let alone society writ large, is long and colorful.
Many of us remember being protected from the potential effects of seeing the bottom half of the TV screen when “Elvis the Pelvis” was gyrating on the Ed Sullivan Show on January 6, 1957 -- ironically, to a gospel number. Tipper Gore made a name for herself forcing record labels to add warning stickers to albums after her daughter Karenna brought home a copy of Prince’s “Purple Rain” album.
Of course, every whip has a backlash, and Tipper’s efforts must be said to have been worth it, if only for the contents of the warning label the late musical polymath Frank Zappa decided to put on his next record: “This album contains material which a truly free society would neither fear nor suppress… religious fanatics and ultra-conservative political organizations violate your First Amendment rights by attempting to censor rock & roll albums.”
The successor to the threat of the devil in a blue dress of rock music has been video gaming, which has appeared at first blush to be a violence factory. However, like many things in the media space and beyond, looks can be deceiving. If it isn’t counter-intuitive, it probably isn’t intuitive at all.
In fact, in one of the most definitive studies to date on the topic, a recent study involving more than 2,000 British teens by the Oxford Internet Institute found no link whatsoever between playing “violent” video games and real-world aggressive behavior. In the words of the study’s lead researcher, Andrew Przybylski, “A cherry-picked result can add undue weight to the moral panic surrounding video games.” They may be more outlet than trigger.
Far more worrisome is the wholesale migration of mankind to the palm-sized supercomputer known as a mobile phone. In a sobering finding, a recent report by the World Bank states that the world’s poorest households are more likely to have access to mobile phones than to toilets. The late neurologist Oliver Sacks, in a posthumous piece in The New Yorker, worries that “a majority of the population is now glued almost without pause to phones or other devices… What we are seeing—and bringing on ourselves—resembles a neurological catastrophe on a giant scale.”
There are physiological as well as behavioral aspects to our cellular umbilical cord. If held to the ear, the electromagnetic radiation in a mobile phone is powerful enough to accelerate brain activity after less than an hour. More troubling, the bone marrow in a child’s head absorbs ten times more radiation than an adult’s. While studies differ on the impact on brain health and possible carcinogenesis, a two-year study by Finland’s Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority found that radiation from mobile phones can cause brain tissue damage. Use its speaker mode.
While rock music and video gaming were seen as threats largely to the young, a recent study by Reviews.org surprised its researchers by finding little difference in the newest and more problematic media development, phone behavior, between young and old. Telephonic bad habits cut across demographics. More than 90 percent in the study feel uneasy leaving home without their phone—doubtless spouses and kids are easier to part with—and more than three-out-of-four consider themselves addicted to their phone. The majority check their phone up to 160 times a day, and almost one-quarter check their phone with up to twice that frequency.
One area of difference is by gender: nearly 60 percent of men use their phones for adult content—you know who you are—versus just over one-third of women. Anthony Weiner and Jeff Bezos, please stand down. In a more immediate danger zone, the majority use or look at their phone while driving, and in the brave-new-world category, nearly 60 percent have texted someone in the same room. Deep into the too-much-information bucket, more than two-thirds admit using their phone while on the toilet. Folks, this is what the mute button is for. Use it.
Where we are headed with all this phonophilia is anyone’s guess, but the fact that it was Sacks’ deathbed concern should worry us in turn. After cataloguing the cellphone tsunami all around him, Sacks longed to see the glass as half-full: “I dare to hope that, despite everything, human life and its richness of cultures will survive, even on a ravaged earth.” This is not exactly consoling, but at least he lands somewhere alongside Albert Einstein when he wrote to physicist Max Born in 1926 that, “I, in any case, am convinced He does not play dice with the universe.” Whether He tweets is perhaps another story for another time.
So take those old records off the shelf, boot up Grand Theft Auto on your multiplayer system, and park the phone.
Dalton Delan is an accomplished American writer, editor, television producer and documentary filmmaker. His column is copyrighted by Berkshire Writers Group.