Are Smartphones Making Us Techdumb?

My 21-year-old sister has two laptops, both perfectly serviceable hand-me-downs from me, and she doesn’t use either of them. The things she thinks computing devices are for — social networking, messaging and casual gaming – are more easily accomplished on her smartphone. Though constantly connected, she never touches a traditional computer. And she’s not alone.

I had a weird experience a few months ago when I had to show one of my students how to access web-based email on a school computer. She had no idea what her password was. She didn’t know what url would allow her to access her email client, or how to type in a url in the address bar of a web browser. She completely missed the little “Forgot your password?” link. She had set up her email on her smartphone, once, and so the very act of logging into something was quite foreign for her.

For some people, smartphones have completely superseded the idea of a general purpose personal computer. This is wonderful in poor countries where the expensive infrastucture of a wired communication network has been leapfrogged by mobile technology. There are nations which would have neither phones, nor television, nor computers, but they can get all of the above through comparatively affordable cell phones. Seriously, that’s great. When the alternative is being cut off from the world, mobile phone technology has been an amazing thing.

But what happens to North American Gen Yers as they head out into the working world? Some of them have never managed files, learned to type (even the fastest texter is well behind my typing speed), or gotten to know basic spreadsheet or other information-processing software. Sales of smartphones and tablets (which are really just big smartphones) are up; sales of traditional desktops and laptops are down. The decline in the United States hasn’t been as bad as in some countries, but there’s still a clear trend.

Do my personal anecdotes have anything to do with anything, or am I extrapolating from nothing? Well, according to a student norms study from CIRP, fewer than 40% of students felt they had strong computer skills, despite the fact that these same students self-report as social media addicts. The latest results are from 2011, so the real smartphone tsunami hadn’t even hit yet.

Those surveyed students understand an obvious point that not everyone gets: spending a lot of time in a technically complex environment doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with being technically skilled. Today’s teens and tweens understand how to interact with user interfaces, but don’t really get how their programs or networks work. Writing HTML from scratch in Notepad is rarely called for these days, but it sure is nice to have a back-up option when WordPress isn’t doing what you want it to do.

This recent list of careers with high starting salaries has website and mobile app developers in the number-four and -five slots. Niche jobs in IT are hard to fill, and a versatile technical skill-set has value. But that’s not my concern. There will probably always be technical whizzes who step into those roles.

I’m thinking about our general student population, and the fall they’re setting themselves up for. Basic computer literacy is still a necessity, even for the least technically-inclined among us. Isn’t it?

And if you don’t agree, well, remember it doesn’t really matter what you or I think. If the Baby-Boomer hiring manager looks at your résumé and under computer skills, and all you’ve listed is Twitter, Facebook, and Farmville, you just might be out of luck.

Value privacy and security for your personal emails? Sign this petition to tell Google to stop reading your emails now.

Related stories:

Smartphones Add Hours to the Work Week

The Cell Phone Turns 40: Pros & Cons of a Cordless Life

Photo credit: Thinkstock.


Sonia Minwer-Barakat Requ
Sonia M4 years ago

Interesting,thanks for sharing

Nessie B.
Nessie B4 years ago

How poignant - thanks.

Marie W.
Marie W4 years ago

From 2006
Are College Students Techno Idiots?

Pandute A P
Pandute AP4 years ago

Interesting article

Jennifer C.
Past Member 4 years ago


Sue H.
Sue H4 years ago

Somewhat disturbing information.

Gene Jacobson
Gene J4 years ago

"I’m thinking about our general student population, and the fall they’re setting themselves up for. Basic computer literacy is still a necessity, even for the least technically-inclined among us. Isn’t it?"

Yes, I think it is. And I have a smartphone. I just don't use it very smartly. It is basically a phone to me and a way to text a little with my grand kids. I still use a desktop for most things and always will. So will they. Try writing a thesis with a stylus or on a smartphone. Or any kind of paper for that matter. Try doing real research, in-depth research on any topic on a smartphone. I did put my email on my first smartphone but took it off almost immediately, far too difficult to use and as the author pointed out, my typing speed is a LOT faster than my texting speed. Most higher paying jobs are going to require desktop skills for a long time to come - as much maligned as Microsoft is, the use of word processing, spreadsheets and databases is not going away anytime soon. If we aren't teaching our children to be literate in this area, we are failing them.

Tim C.
Tim C4 years ago


Fred Hoekstra
Fred H4 years ago

Thank you Joel, for Sharing this!

Karen H.
Karen H4 years ago

If you want to learn about "dumbing down" people and how it controls them, read Kingsley Dennis' book The Struggle for Your Mind. Scary! Do you know some of the "people" responding to your comments on some websites are not people at all and are geared to keep you busy on-line rather than doing something more productive?