Children between the ages of 13 and 17 who have a mobile phone average 1,742 text messages each month, according to a report by the Nielsen Company in September 2008. That comes to nearly 60 per day. They also make 231 voice calls each month, close to eight per day. They play games on the device as well, and browse the Web, take pictures and log hours of social networking.
No wonder so many of them consider the cellphone (for some it is a BlackBerry or an iPhone) an essential part of their lives. Half of all young people between the ages of 8 and 12 own one such device, according to a Harris Interactive poll conducted in July 2008. The rate rises to around four out of five for teenagers; that’s a 36 percent increase over the previous three years, which means that these tools have swept into young people’s lives with the dispatch and coerciveness of a youth fad (like Pokemon and Harry Potter). The devices are more than just consumer goods. They are signs and instruments of status.
The age-old force of peer pressure bears down hard. Indeed, 45 percent of the teens that sport one agree that “Having a cellphone is the key to my social life”—not just helpful or useful, but “the key.” If you don’t own a cellphone, if you can’t text, game, network and chat, then you are out of the loop. It is like not being picked to play kickball back in the primitive days of neighborhood sandlot gatherings. If a 16-year-old runs up 3,000 text messages in one month (and does not have a flat payment plan), mom and dad take the phone away. It’s just a silly, expensive toy, they think. But the 16-year-old thinks, “You have destroyed my life!” And for them, this seems true. Digital tools are the primary means of social contact. When they lose them, kids feel excluded and unpopular, and nothing hits a 16-year-old harder than the disregard of other 16-year-olds. They do not care what 40-year-olds think, and they do not worry about what happened at Thermopylae or what Pope John Paul II said about the “splendor of truth.” They care about what other students in biology class think, what happened last week at the party and what so-and-so said about them.
It is an impulse long preceding the advent of the microchip, but digital devices have empowered that impulse as never before. Think about the life stage of adolescence. Teenagers stand at a precarious threshold, no longer children and not yet adults, eager to be independent but lacking the equipment and composure. They have begun to leave the home and shed the influence of parents, but they don’t know where they are headed, and most of them find meager materials beyond the home out of which to build their characters. So they look to one another, emulating dress and speech, forming groups of insiders and outsiders, finding comfort in boyfriends and girlfriends, and deflecting more or less tenuously the ever-present risk of embarrassment.
Everyone passes through this phase, but this generation’s experience marks a crucial change in the process. In the past, social life proceeded intermittently, all day at school and for a few hours after school. Kids hung out for an afternoon over the weekend and enjoyed a movie or party on Friday or Saturday night. Other than that, social life pretty much ended. They went home for dinner and entered a private space with only a “landline” as a means of contact (which appears to young people today a restricted connection—show them a rotary phone and watch them scowl). Teenage social life and peer-to-peer contact had a limit.
Teenagers did not like it. I certainly didn’t want to listen to my parents when I turned 16. But the limit was healthy and effectual. Adolescents needed then and need now a reprieve from the tribal customs and peer fixations of middle school and high school. Wounds from lunchroom gossip and bullying, as well as the blandishments of popularity and various niche-crowd memberships, disable the maturing process. These form a horizon of adolescent triumphs and set the knowledge of history, civics, religion, fine art and foreign affairs beyond the pale of useful and relevant acquisitions. If a sophomore sat down on a bus with the gang and said, “Hey, did you see the editorial on school funding in The Times this morning?” the rest would scrunch up their faces as if an alien being sat among them.
Youthful mores screen out such things, which is all the more reason for parents to offer an alternative. A home and leisure life separate from teen stuff exposes youths to heroes and villains that surpass the idols of the senior class, to places beyond the food court and Apple Store, to times well before the glorious day they got their driver’s license. It acquaints them with adult duties, distant facts and values and truths they will not fully comprehend until much later. They don’t like them and rarely find them meaningful, but in pre-digital times teens had nowhere else to go after they entered the front door. They had to sit at the dining table and listen to parents talk about grocery shopping, vacation plans, Nixon, gas prices and the news.
No longer. In 1980, when an angry parent commanded, “Go to your room—you’re grounded!” the next few hours meant isolation for the teen. Today, the bedroom is not a private space. It’s a social hub. For many kids, the bedroom at midnight provides a rich social life that makes daytime face-to-face conversations seem tame and slow. Amid the pillows with laptop or BlackBerry, they chat with buddies in 11th grade and in another state. Photos fly back and forth while classmates sleep, revelations spill forth in tweets (“OMG, Billy just called Betty his ——”), and Facebook pages gain flashier graphics.
In this dynamic 24/7 network, teen activity accrues more and more significance. The events of the day carry greater weight as they are recorded and circulated. The temptation for teens to be self-absorbed and self-project, to consider the details of their lives eminently memorable and share-able, grows and grows. As they give in online, teenagers’ peer consciousness expands while their historical understanding, civic awareness and taste go dormant before they have even had much chance to develop.
This is the hallmark of what I have called the Dumbest Generation. These kids have just as much intelligence and ambition as any previous cohort, but they exercise them too much on one another. They are building youth culture into a ubiquitous universe, and as ever, youth culture is a drag on maturity. This time it has a whole new arsenal.