I rarely go a day without hearing someone complain about how teenagers and young adults are glued to their phones. Just the other day, my professor remarked that within the past year or two, none of her undergraduates leave the room like they used to when she called for a 15-minute break. They stay firmly planted in their chairs and let their thumbs do the traveling as they pull out their smartphones and fly through the Twittersphere.
She expressed this with the exasperation of someone trying (unsuccessfully) to make sense of a foreign, maybe primitive worldview. In her eyes, it’s incomprehensible not to leave the room during that cherished break halfway through a three-hour seminar. Don’t these kids need to recharge their mental batteries?
As mystifying as it was to her, the answer was obvious to me. Being in my mid-twenties, I straddle the line between having grown up with technology and still remembering a time before the Internet. That said, the first thing I do when I’ve been subjected to a long class or meeting — or something that I didn’t entirely want to do — is check my phone. Why? Well, it takes me back to a world that I have control over. In my opinion, parents and authority figures who are frustrated with teenagers’ cell phone use aren’t seeing an enormous reason that this issue exists in the first place: freedom and independence.
Having a smartphone in the 2010s is like having a car in the 1950s and early ’60s. It brings a sense of unleashed potential and limitless travel that so many young people yearn for while growing up. Just like car culture preoccupied the youth of post-World War II America, with drive-ins and drive-thrus becoming the norm for socializing, smartphone culture holds similar promise and opportunity for breaking free from parental authority and societal limitations. The newly constructed interstate highway system in the early Car Age was much like the increasingly ubiquitous yet ethereal cellular network we have today.
For a young person in the mid-20th century, all they needed was the vehicle with which to traverse that wild, new network. Just as cars were the vehicles for those young people to explore the world on their own terms, rather than through the lens of their parents, I argue that smartphones are similar vehicles for independent self-expression and exploration. It is online (rather than at the movies, mall, or hamburger joints) that young people congregate, share memes and inside jokes, ogle at one another, and become co-creators in their own culture. This all takes place in a realm inaccessible to most of their parents, who can never seem to keep up with the rapidly changing trends and social media platforms.
So next time parents complain that their children are never without their small, glowing companion five inches away from their nose, I invite them to wonder, why is it that their smartphone holds such allure? Could the reason be more interesting than mere boredom, or whatever these concerned people presuppose?
Is it because there’s a promise of independence that young people naturally seek out? Is there something about youth culture that can only be seen through the lens of a rearview mirror or a glass screen? Perhaps youth culture must have a place to thrive outside of traditional social mores from which it seeks to differentiate. Rather than chastising or punishing kids for their screen time, it might be better to have an honest conversation with them about how much independence and agency they feel they have over their lives, and how best to integrate and incorporate those concepts into analog interaction.
If the discourse gets too tied up worrying about how much time others should be spending online, it will distract from the real problem: the dominant social media platforms are built by owners and companies whose interests are not sincerely aligned with those of their users. Much like the mall before it, corporate social media offer young people a feeling of freedom, but their true purpose is to corral, to homogenize, and to extract. Real freedom would require user-owned online spaces, and those would provide societal freedoms and benefits that are no mere youthful escape. If there’s anything to be concerned about, it’s that this generation isn’t investing itself enough in its virtual social spaces.