Last Sunday, the New York Times ran a piece about how smart phones are destroying the next generation. I always find it interesting that it’s always the next generation that’s being destroyed, but the generation writing think pieces about that destruction have always been mercifully spared. While the article does note that parents are as addicted to technology as their children are, it swiftly moves on to discussing the myriad ways teens aren’t communicating correctly.
I could mock this piece by scrounging up anecdotes about similar changes in technology that lead to dire warnings of societal collapse. There are plenty of examples: the internet. The telephone. The novel. I’m sure that even the harnessing of fire was criticized as a civilization ender, with middle-aged cave people lamenting the good old days when everyone lived in mortal dread of being eaten by a bear in the dark. But we don’t have to reach so far back for this one; smart phones and social media are providing all of us–not just the doomed “next generation”–with a level of connectivity to our fellow humans that we’ve never experienced before, and it’s all become possible in a very short span of years. All of us, even those who are writing disparaging think pieces, remember a time we would now consider unbearable. In the movie Hot Tub Time Machine, a teenager who mysteriously finds himself trapped in 1985 is astounded when a girl reminds him that there’s no way to text or email her. If he wants to talk to her, she explains, he has to come and find her. His response? “That sounds exhausting.”
And it was exhausting. And boring. And isolating. I grew up in a rural area, in a house where I was the only child. If the school year ended and I didn’t have a friend’s phone number, I didn’t speak to them until September–an interminable wait when you’re young and time seems so much longer. If I wanted to meet with my friends and spend time, the arrangements were contingent upon whether or not our parents had the means or inclination to get us into the same place at once. With no neighbor children to play with, summers could be very lonely.
My son, however, never spends his summers alone. Though he can’t always be with his friends in person, they gather online via Skype to play Minecraft or watch “let’s play” videos together on YouTube. They talk and they giggle and socialize, and some of them are doing this with the aid of smart phones.
Those lonely summers I spent might have been less lonely if we’d had smart phones. I could have texted or emailed my friends, rather than having to work up the courage to call them. To this day, I have debilitating phone anxiety that makes a single phone call an all day project as I sit and talk myself into dialing the number. I could have had long conversations via Facebook messenger, seen pictures from their summer vacations and shared my own. And failing all that, I could have downloaded books, rather than waiting for a weekly trip to the library.
I don’t begrudge my children the technology that provides them an adolescence filled with more conveniences than I had in mine. Will they grow up differently than I did? Of course they will, but every advance changes our way of life. That’s the point of advancement. We strive for change, but fear it when it arrives. Since we don’t want to blame ourselves for causing it, we resent the next generation for using the tools we’ve created for them.
Maybe kids these days don’t communicate the way kids did twenty years ago. Maybe it’s making them different. But kids twenty years before that were different, too. Our luddite insistence that any behavioral change caused by technology will spin us into a grim dystopia foretold in 1950’s science fiction novels proves that the only true constant is the human ego. Because how can the next generation possibly thrive or surpass us unless they duplicate our experiences exactly?