The smartphone. Umbilical cord for parents or IT corporations?

By Peter Hensinger, July 2017

There are two reasons why parents give their children a smartphone. The first is the fear that their children will lose out in the “digital world” without knowledge of such devices. The second is that being able to reach their children at any time creates security in an unsecure world.

Photo: © suze_photocase.de

Two misapprehensions: neurobiology gives a clear answer to the first reason. The use of smartphones and tablet PCs before the age of 12 leads to disorders as the brain matures. The necessary diversity of sensory experiences is reduced to swiping the screen and the brain therefore lacks the building blocks to mature. They are replaced by false building blocks such as sensory overload creating the disposition for Internet addiction, learning and attention disorders and ADHD.

With the smartphone they give their children, parents are giving away control over their upbringing: to the games developers, the Internet, Microsoft, Google, Apple and their algorithms. In her book Das Ende der Demokratie” (The End of Democracy), Yvonne Hofstetter divests the smartphone of its fascination: “Smartphones are measuring devices which can also be used to make telephone calls  … This creates huge quantities of data which allows the person analysing them not just to draw conclusions about each individual but also about society as a whole.”

Big data stands for the collection, analysis and marketing of great quantities of data. The big data psychograms reveal strengths, weaknesses, feelings and desires, knowledge of which enables the individual to be targeted – microtargeting. Who is it that measures, stores, analyses and controls? Against what unwanted side effects must we protect children, but also ourselves?

The smartphone as superbug

The smartphone is a mobile superbug which leaves an unbroken digital trail about its user. The blanket and free wireless network provides the monitoring infrastructure. We pay with our data. Many apps have spy functions hidden in them which can be used to collect data such as for example emails, texts, contacts, photos or videos via a feedback channel. Every Google click, ever Facebook or WhatsApp entry is stored by dozens of firms to create a personal profile – a digital twin. The digital profile has a price, it is for sale and it is traded: by Bertelsmann, Otto Versand and Deutsche Post.

Let us assume a child is given a smartphone at the age of six. When they have reached the age of 18, the digital file is brimming over. The young person now applies for a job. The digital twin is already in the PC of the HR manager, he has a transparent applicant before him. He knows the category of the applicant’s friends, the applicant’s  intelligence, their school, leisure and social behaviour, he knows what books the applicant reads and what they consume, whether they do sport or are a computer addict, what their financial dependence is, what illnesses they suffered or suffer from, knows about their alcohol consumption, juvenile  sentences, worldview, relationships and sexual orientation. The HR manager also knows the applicant’s stored learning behaviour through the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) learning programme at universities.

That has lifelong consequences not just for job applicants. Insurance companies, the authorities and banks classify people with the help of their digital profile. Constitutionally guaranteed values such as the confidentiality of letters, banking and postal secrecy, the inviolability of the home soon won’t be worth the paper they are written on. The private sphere is being sacrificed, we live in a surveillance society. The hype over digital media lets us ignore this, we are sinking into a fatalistic acceptance of our self-disenfranchisement. The response “I don’t have anything to hide” is a naive justification for every kind of surveillance; it shows we have already conformed.

It is no different to saying that we aren’t worried about freedom of expression because we don’t have anything to say. What is insidiously changing in the psyche and the structure of society as a result?

Manipulation for hyper consumption

Children do not yet have a finished system of values, cannot yet separate reality from virtual reality. Their data are used to make them want things with precisely profiled advertising and to infect their soul with the ideology of growth and consumption. The digital media prevent the cognitive ability to construct knowledge autonomously. Computers and apps explain how the world functions, the algorithm of a corporation takes over the upbringing of the child.

It spews out profile-related consumption and fashion worlds, film and Red Bull illusions. The run of young people on the Primark fashion chain is the result of such manipulation. Primark advertises its inferior clothing, produced by slave labour, via bloggers in the social media directly to the smartphone. We consume what is ready-made instead of being creative ourselves in making things, during play, playing music or in the group. Consumerism leads to pseudo-individualisation and alienation. Consumption as vicarious satisfaction is a form of social control. Big data allows for new digital disciplinary techniques which ensure that human activity predictably integrates itself in the processes of the consumer society.

Isolation in the world of consumption

Digital personalisation reduces the members of a society to their purchasing power as consumers. The already eight hours of screen media usage is measurable evidence of how face-to-face communication is waning (Sigman 2012). “The increasing concentration on our own person promotes egoism and corrodes our sense of community, society and solidarity,” writes Yvonne Hofstetter (Hofstetter 2016). A long-term study by the psychologist Sara Konrath (University of Michigan, 2010) with 14,000 students shows a 40 percent decline in the capacity for empathy in the last 30 years. This reveals itself in cyberbullying, coarsening in Internet blogs and egocentric careerism.

The rapidly increasing divorce from reality among many young people and their submersion in virtual worlds was one of the main results of the “Jugendreport Natur 2016” (Youth Report Nature 2016). Nature is no longer discovered and experienced through play but is “learned” in school and in the young person’s own room at home. Nature is digitalised (natursoziologie.de).

Children out of control

The smartphone is seen as a gateway drug. Internet games are  programmed to be addictive and activate reward systems in the brain. The big data algorithms analyse the labile state of the player’s emotions in real time and reinforce their dependence. According to a  new DAK study, 8.4 percent  of male children, adolescents and young adults between the age of 12 and 25 fulfil the criteria for dependence according to the so-called “Internet Gaming Disorder Scale” – a measure for online gaming addiction. That is on an epidemic scale.

Because Internet and gaming addiction is growing dramatically, the Deutsches Ärzteblatt, the journal of the German Medical Association, sounded the alarm in December 2016. It was meanwhile known that Internet addiction was “frequently associated with suicidal thoughts, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, aggression, deviance and substance-related addictive disorders”.

On a stationary PC, parents could still control what their child played and for how long. As a rule they no longer have any control over the mobile smartphone. This can be seen above all in that the majority of children and adolescents call up pages harmful to young people – primarily violence and pornography. The Return Media Centre writes: “Almost half of all eleven to thirteen-year-old children have already seen pornographic images or films; with 17-year-olds that rises to 93 percent of boys and 80 percent of girls … The consumption of pornography places the ability to have relationships at risk, promotes sexual violence and contains a great addictive potential” (Media Centre leaflet). Such addictive behaviour is also stored with big data through the feedback channel to reinforce users in precisely these habits. Once on these pages, we are buried in online sex adverts.

The monitored self

Such surveillance, hitherto only permitted in criminal investigations, is becoming an omnipresent superior self. Heribert Prantl analyses the socio-political significance of this development: “Such surveillance will corrode the liberal spirit in the previously so-called free world because surveillance prevents us from being creative. Creativity demands that we can allow ourselves divergent behaviour, that we can make mistakes. Anyone who is under surveillance behaves in a conformist manner. That is the real danger of mass surveillance. It educates us to conformity. It cultivates anticipatory obedience. It breeds self-censorship. The dynamic of self-censorship develops independently of whether there is actual surveillance in the individual case. The abstract but concrete possibility of being under surveillance is enough. Because it gets rid of the certainty that we will be left in peace. And with that privacy disappears and the feeling of being at ease with ourselves. And the loss of the latter is a form of imprisonment; it is a loss of freedom. The power putting us under surveillance causes people to imprison themselves.”

The consequences extend beyond just self-censorship in our thinking and doing: the misjudgement of the risks of total digital surveillance had deadly consequences in the movements of the Arab Spring. Structures and networks of the resistance were uncovered, leading personalities were identified, arrested, tortured and also killed. The illusion of “liquid democracy” led to its liquidation. Something similar is happening in Turkey right now.

Digital education – a Trojan horse

The German Confederation of Industry has intensely demanded a green light for big data. Direct quote: “Such an agency model is growing in importance since empirical knowledge about the customer and their needs is of enormous value.” At the IT summit in November 2016 on “Digital Education”, the German education minister Johanna Wanka acceded to this wish. With five billion euros of start-up finance for tablet PCs and wireless networks in schools, the latter are to be turned into a big data field for industry where the socialisation of “its” consumers takes place.

Parents do not want such economisation and dehumanisation of their children’s education. There is growing resistance and criticism. In the appeal “Trojaner aus Berlin: Der ‘Digitalpakt#D’” (Trojans from Berlin: the ‘Digital Pact#D’), 37 teachers in higher education and school teachers have spoken out against this development, hundreds of their colleagues have meanwhile joined them. The German Association of Waldorf Schools has opposed this development with the demand for an “Analogue Pact”.

The Association of Waldorf Kindergartens has started the appeal “NEIN zur Digitalen Kita! JA zu konstruktiven Bildungsinvestitionen!” (NO to digital  day care! YES to constructive investment in education!). More than 25,000 parents have already signed. In the online survey of the churches’ Public Forum in December 2016, ninety-two percent of people responded with “Yes” to the question “Is childhood better without computers?”. 

About the author: Peter Hensinger heads the Science section at the environmental and consumer organisation “Diagnose-Funk e.V.”. Contact: peter.hensinger(at)diagnose-funk.de 

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