On Monday morning, I got into a conversation on Twitter. There was a tweet, noting that one of the best gifts you can give to your parents is a smartphone. I added to it, saying that this wasn’t such a great idea. I implied that may be gift your parents a feature phone, take care of the telecom bill they will rack up every month, but don’t gift them a smartphone. Now, this is not a popular opinion. People nowadays, and this includes me, live their lives with a smartphone in the middle of it all. They chat through it, they get entertained by it. They access the whole world with a smartphone, and they believe their parents are missing this wonderful tiny gadget. So, they gift them a smartphone. Bad idea!
It’s a bad idea because of what a smartphone can do, is doing, to people, and particularly old people. Or for that matter, to young children and young teens. It’s addictive in an unhealthy way. The virtual world that a smartphone brings to people, the world of social media, the world of phony Facebook friends, the world of conspiracy YouTube videos, the world of incessant notifications, the world of silly WhatsApp forwards, can seem useful but it rarely is.
We live in 2019 and not 2010. In 2010, a smartphone could have been a wonderful gift. In 2019 it is not because now we know that a smartphone can be more of a nuisance than a help, particularly to some people, such as old people, or children and young teens. In fact, unless you need a smartphone like absolutely need it, maybe you should not use one. And you should definitely not gift a smartphone if it is not needed.
I know how the arguments go. One could be that gifting a smartphone to parents is a great idea because it will let them video talk to you. Then, there is the argument that may be a smartphone will help them connect with their friends, will keep them busy now that they have retired. Another argument is that it will help them deal with their loneliness, if they are lonely, because a smartphone opens a window to the world of YouTube, Twitter, all the news sites, and Wikipedia. The wonderful world of web, who wouldn’t want it?
Yet again, this is an argument from 2010. We ought to be wiser in 2019. We ought to know by now that smartphones don’t solve the problem of loneliness and there are countless studies on how social media only aggravates it. We ought to know that chat apps and all the video calls don’t necessarily bring people closer. They are poor substitute for good old face-to-face talk on dinner table, the warmth that meeting people brings.
Instead of all the wonders that a smartphone is supposed to bring to old people, here is what I have seen: People, and particularly old people because they feel the pull of a smartphone and the world of social media more acutely because may be they are lonely or simply just have more time to explore various apps, often get addicted to it.
On occasions, it reminds me of Sara Goldfarb from the Requiem For A Dream. In this movie about addiction, middle-aged Sara, played by Ellen Burstyn, sits in front of her TV whole day, watching infomercials whole day. This is an addiction that unravels her whole life as she gets delusional and takes to drugs.
A smartphone, I believe, not only adds an unnecessary complication to lives of old people through information overload but also probably hurts them physically — smartphone usage zaps body clock, sleep cycle and eyes. They start spending time inside apps like Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube and Twitter. They endlessly scroll through their newsfe. They follow political troll-fests and illogical political fights on Twitter. They forward WhatsApp messages, which don’t make sense.
This is not a fantasy. This is not a claim. I have seen this happening. Now, there are some studies too that hint at the same. Just last month, there was a study in the US that highlighted how old people were particularly susceptible to misinformation. “On average, users over 65 shared nearly seven times as many articles from fake news domains as the youngest age group,” noted the study conducted by researchers from New York University’s Social Media and Political Participation Lab and Princeton University.
You can argue that the genie is out of the bottle, that smartphones are a necessity. For a lot of people a smartphone can be inescapable. For example, I can’t work without a smartphone. It is a necessity and despite all its warts I can’t do without it. It is similar to how living in Delhi-NCR, which is an incredibly polluted place with terrible water and poisonous air, is a necessity for me because I work here. Living in Delhi-NCR is like living in Chernobyl, it probably is worse than even that, but right now I don’t have an option.
If for your parents a smartphone is a necessity, go ahead and gift one to them. Or to your kids, if they too need one. But do think it through. Do you want to gift a smartphone to your parents because you want to ensure that they should be able to talk to you or message you whenever they want? May be gift them a feature phone. It is easier to operate than a smartphone. It’s more private. I have also seen that often old people end up downloading spam apps and ad-fraud apps on their phones and that they rarely delete anything so phones start crawling, freezing after a few months of use.
Or maybe you want your parents to video chat with you, and your kid, and your wife because you live far from them. In this case, may be gift your parents a tablet, or a device like Echo Spot. In fact, for calls too something like Echo Speaker is a better idea because it will let you talk to your parents using a few apps on your phone, but they will not be burdened with a smartphone.
Think about it? Why do your parents need a smartphone? They have probably lived whole their lives without one, and yet they have done fine. Rather, more than fine. Probably better than how you are doing right now. They have lived a richer life, more meaningful life than the one you live on your smartphone right now. They have succeeded in life without a smartphone, they have made great friends without a smartphone. Now, when they are old, do you really think they need a smartphone?
May be they do. And in those exceptional cases, fine, go ahead. But maybe they don’t. And in that case, don’t impose one on them just because you believe it is supposed to be at the centre of modern life. A smartphone doesn’t really solve the problem that we all believe it does.