By now, you’ve likely seen the video making the rounds of comedian Louis C.K. delivering a long harangue about the evils of cellphones.
Cellphones – especially when placed in the hands of children – are “toxic,” he argues, not enabling people to develop empathy or appreciate silence and sadness.
But might Louis C.K. be wrong?
Over the past few days, people have chimed in to mostly cheer on the comedian. But Monday, Daniel Engber, a writer at Slate, penned a compelling argument on why the critically adored comedian might have it wrong after all.
Take his argument on empathy, for example: “Kids are mean, and it’s because they’re trying it out,” the comedian said during his appearance on Conan. “They look at a kid and they go ‘you’re fat,’ and then they see the kid’s face scrunch up and they go, ‘ooh, it doesn’t feel good to do that.’ But they gotta start with doing the mean thing.”
But with a cellphone, he says, “they just write ‘you’re fat,’ then they go ‘mmm, that was fun. I like that.’ ”
But this argument – that technology leads to emotionally stunted people – is as old as “the invention of the printed book,” Engber writes for Slate, and has never really ever held up. He points to a study by researchers at Stanford University, published in Developmental Psychology last year, that found cellphone ownership and use of other technology such as TVs or computers among girls aged 8 to 12 has “little direct association with children’s socioemotional well-being.”
The study found that even those girls who spent the most amount of time huddled over their cellphone texting or browsing were not any less likely to spend face-to-face time with their friends or peers.
And Louis C.K.’s second argument – that cellphones distract us from being able to feel emotions – doesn’t hold up either, according to Engber.
“I was in my car one time, and a Bruce Springsteen song came on, and it made me really sad,” the comedian said to Conan O’Brien. “I started to get that sad feeling, and I was reaching for the phone, and then I said ‘Hey, don’t. Just be sad. Just let the sadness – stand in the way of it. Let it hit you like a truck.’ And I pulled over and I just cried.”
He described the moment as “beautiful,” and argued that people who distract themselves from moments such as those by texting or talking on cellphones “never feel completely sad or completely happy.”
But distracting ourselves to avoid negative feelings is something we’ve always done, even before the existence of cellphones, Engber argues.
“When I was an eight- to 12-year-old boy, I filled up every empty moment of my days reading science-fiction paperbacks,” he writes. “I didn’t have a smartphone, but neither did I follow C.K.’s advice to ‘just be myself and not do anything.’ Neither did my parents. Every morning at breakfast, and every evening before dinner, they staved off the void with public radio. They didn’t have the benefit of mobile apps, but they shrugged off moments of depression or dismay by doing crossword puzzles and listening to All Things Considered.”