Cell phones can cause a lot of friction between traditionalists and “digital natives” (Millennials and younger). But should we be celebrating the convenience of these tools, rather than wringing our hands over texting culture and the decay of humanity?
Real-life Scenes of Texting Culture
The scene is a house party of 20-somethings. The mood is festive but low-key. People enter and exit rooms and settle on furniture and against window sills. The house is filled with people; it’s someone’s birthday. There’s a record playing on a turntable—an early 2000s Beck release. Hands reach into pockets or purses and faces alight with the synthetic glow of smartphones. Fingers press tiny keys. Most of the people at this party are texting people who are not at this party.
Family Dinner Scene
The scene is a suburban family room-slash-kitchen. A father fries eggs—“breakfast for dinner”—while his wife sorts the laundry. The kids sit in front of a flat screen TV that’s airing nightly tabloid news. The girl is 15 and the boy is 9, and both are holding electronic devices. Mom’s phone buzzes and soon, she is engaged in a Facebook comment thread. Dad announces that dinner is ready, and makes himself a plate. He’s finishing up his dinner by the time his son has won his game and his wife has finished with Facebook. His daughter is still texting. Everyone’s eggs are cold now and he feels a little lonely, but it’s the way things go these days.
Scared Girl in Custody Battle Scene
The scene is the hallway outside a county courthouse. A child custody hearing is about to take place. A girl of 12 looks younger than her age; she looks afraid. Inside the courtroom, her parents have begun screaming at each other and the judge is calling her court to order. Across from the girl, a guardian ad litem sits—her job is to testify on behalf of the girl’s needs and wishes. The hall is crowded with relatives and others who feel they have a stake in the decision. The guardian pulls her phone out of her purse and types a message for the girl, “I’ve got your back, remember? Everything is going to be OK.” She keys in a smiley face. When the girl gets the message, she smiles back, maybe for the first time all day.
Smartphones Can Be Both Negative and Positive
Robert Weiss, senior vice president of clinical development with Elements Behavioral Health and co-author with Jennifer Schneider of Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships, hopes we’ll understand that technology can have positive effects on relationships and work; it isn’t all bad.
Digital immigrants – Boomers, older Gen X’s and folks who didn’t grow up with technology the way digital natives have – are often guilty of seeing the glass half-empty. And sometimes, the glass is. When we look around at parties and see that everyone is on a phone instead of getting to know one another—something more and more common among younger people these days—it begs the question: are younger people more comfortable interacting through technology than face to face?
Sometimes, the answer may be “yes.” Does this mean that technology has stripped younger generations of the ability to have relationships? Weiss says no. His answer is that younger generations may simply be bonding differently, and may in some ways be more intimately connected.
Younger people are more comfortable revealing private details about their lives in public formats, while older generations tend to look on this with the “alarm and misapprehension” not seen since “the days of rock and roll.” Weiss sites a 2009 study that revealed that half of American teens log onto a social media site once daily, and that 25 percent of them log on 10 times per day or more. Three-quarters of American teenagers have cell phones and the vast majority are regular texters—with girls sending an average 80 texts per day. It’s probably a good idea to buy your teen an unlimited texting plan, and if you want to communicate with a young person, send a text or an email.
The Benefits of Being Open to New Technology
“Sometimes it can feel easier to judge and avoid, rather than to embrace and evolve. Thus we have the current communications-driven generation gap,” says Weiss. Every generation offers culture a new way of being in the world. Better to get behind them than to resist them. That said, any cultural wave can be taken to excess. We want to keep our ear to the ground and our eyes to the technology as it develops. We want to pay attention to how our society is changing and whether our use of varying technologies is healthy, and if our children’s use is. Sometimes it’s a good idea to sit down to a meal without games, emails or texts. Other times we can use these technologies to reach across a hallway and touch the life of someone we might not be able to reach any other way.