When asked by Conan O’Brien if his daughters had smartphones, comedian Louis CK explained that he had successfully fended them off by simply replying, “No, you can’t have it. It’s bad for you. I don’t care what you want.”
He instantly became my hero.
This hit home for me because at the time, I was mired in difficult negotiations with my ten-year-old daughter over one. And frankly, she was winning. Was it possible that I could just say no to my daughter, as CK suggested? I hadn’t even known I was allowed to, if the guinea pigs, the dogs, and the basementful of American Girl paraphernalia for her doll Molly were any indication. CK rationalized, “I’m not raising the children—I’m raising the grown-ups that they’re going to be. So just because the other stupid kids have phones doesn’t mean that my kid has to be stupid, or otherwise she’ll feel weird.”
OK, I was sold. But now that I knew I didn’t want my kid to grow up stupid like her friends, I needed to explain to her why she shouldn’t grow up stupid like her friends. After all, she liked her stupid friends. That’s why they were her friends. And this is what CK told Conan and me.
Cell phones are “toxic, especially for kids,” he said, because they don’t help them learn empathy, one of the nicer human emotions. When we text, we don’t see or hear a visceral reaction. The response we get is in cold, hard text-speak. Why are kids mean? he asked. “Because they’re trying it out. They look at another kid and go, ‘You’re fat.’ Then they see the kid’s face scrunch up, and they think, Ooh, that doesn’t feel good.” There, they’ve experienced empathy. Texting “you’re fat” allows you to bypass the pain you’ve caused.
CK went on to explain to Conan and me that smartphones rob us of our ability to be alone. Kids use smartphones to occupy their time: Must text! Must play game! Must look up more tiny American Girl socks online for Molly!!! CK asked, Whatever happened to just zoning out? After all, one of the joys of being human is allowing our minds to wander. With cell phones, kids are always preoccupied. They never daydream, except in class. And here’s something else we’re missing out on thanks to Steve Jobs’s little gizmo: our right to be miserable. This was a right I hadn’t realized I desired until CK pointed out that it’s yet another of the essential human emotions.
CK gave the example of driving by yourself and suddenly realizing that you’re alone. Not “Oh, hey, guess I can’t use the HOV lane” alone. We’re talking Ingmar Bergman alone. Dark, brooding sadness that causes so many drivers to grab that smartphone and reach out to another living soul.
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“Everybody’s murdering each other with their cars” as they text, CK screamed, because they dread being alone. Too bad—they’re missing out on a life-affirming experience.
“I was in my car one time, and Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Jungleland’ came on,” he told Conan and me. “And he sounds so far away. It made me really sad. And I think, OK, I’ve got to get the phone and write hi to 50 people. I was reaching for the phone, and I thought, Don’t! Just be sad.”
So CK pulled over and allowed himself to sob like a little girl denied that brand-new four-poster bed for her American Girl doll. “It was beautiful. Sadness is poetic. You’re lucky to live sad moments,” he said. And because he didn’t fight it, because he allowed himself to be miserable, his body released endorphins. “Happiness rushed in to meet the sadness. I was grateful to feel sad, and then I met it with true profound happiness.
“The thing is, because we don’t want that first bit of sad, we push it away with that little phone,” CK said. “So you never feel completely sad or completely happy. You just feel kind of satisfied. And then you die.
“And that’s why I don’t want to get phones for my kids.”
And I suppose I don’t either.
Do you agree with Andy and Louis? For a rebuttal to their argument, check out Slate.com.