By Narrelle Gilchrist
Three teenagers. All friends. Each with a palm-sized, fully activated smartphone in his or her face. None of them interacting. None of them noticing the life around them, instead of what’s on the screen. Taking selfies. Looking at memes. This is what matters now.
At a friend’s extravagant birthday dinner a few nights ago, I looked at ten other teenage girls, one by one, and saw that each one of them was staring at her phone. What scarce conversation there was consisted of showing each other particular pictures, texts, or social media status updates that had captivated their attention. The girl sitting on my right was absorbed in the “Kim Kardashian game”; the girl across from me was busy checking her Instagram. Not once did they look around them to notice the luxurious restaurant or their friends’ beautiful dresses. At one point in the evening, I glanced across the table to see one girl holding her iPhone in one hand and the spoon in the other, too absorbed by her texts to focus on the succulent roasted chicken soup in front of her.
Why has the “phone in the face” teenager become the new social norm? Somehow, none of the parents except mine seemed to think that anything was wrong, impolite, or abnormal about the fact that all of their daughters looked at their phones more than each other during the three course meal. And when I asked the trustworthy, never-failing Google to provide me with an explanation for this social phenomenon, it popped up dozens of results detailing when parents should give their children cellphones, but nothing about how to stop their children from becoming addicted, mindless drones whose phones never leave their hands.
According to a poll by the Pew Research Center, 75% of teenagers today own cellphones, up from 45% in 2004. 72% of all teenagers text, and 54% admit to being daily texters. I well remember the day when our family’s cellphone bill came in the mail, revealing that my sister had sent over 4,000 text messages in just that one month. Despite how shocking this number had seemed to me at the time, my number of texts, around 300, was actually the abnormal one. Today, one in three teenagers send over 3,000 texts a month, or at least 100 texts a day (Lenhart).
Meme. Vimeo. Vine. My vocabulary is expanding every day, but none of these worlds will be on the SAT. The other day, the trusty voice on the speaker during a phone call told me to press “pound, or hashtag,” for more options. Over the past decade, an entirely new culture of social media and social networking has formed, shifting the primary focus of teenagers’ entertainment. Instead of reading books, playing board games, or even just calling their friends, teenagers now text, flip through Facebook, post on Instagram, and watch YouTube videos for entertainment. Most of the time, they don’t even watch conventional television shows; they use Netflix streaming. Instead of calling their friends, they text them – something that can be done all the time, non-stop, while doing homework even. Phones are now multimedia, mini computer-like devices that can be used for a variety of functions. A Pew Center poll discovered that 83% of teen cellphone users take pictures on their phones, and 64% share those pictures with others. 46% play games on their phones, while 60% play music.
What is it about cell phones that so captivates and addicts modern teenagers? What can hold their attention for so long, and so often? Texting, Facebooking, browsing the Internet, posting on Instagram, playing games, sending “snap chats” – none of these activities are able to hold my interest for more than a few minutes, a few seconds even. Yet, most teenagers can sit there for hours on end, holding their phones, their eyes “too tired” to do any more schoolwork, yet awake enough to squint at a tiny screen. And apparently, the phone offers such entertainment that pulling it out and using it in the company of friends seems completely justified. Nowadays, half the time, when I am talking to another teenager, I am talking to someone who is participating in two conversations at once – one with me and one with her phone. And even on the road, the attraction of the phone is overpowering. 34% of highschool drivers admit that they have texted while driving, and 48% of adolescents have ridden in a car while the driver was texting (“Texting and Driving”).
After years of cellphone issues and drama, my choir has recently become a cell-phone free haven. All phones are collected at the door and filed into a system of boxes, where they are kept until the end of the rehearsal. Break, when the hallways used to be filled with teenagers sitting alone with their phones, is now a time for forming connections and strengthening friendships. No longer do parent volunteers have to comb the room for phones hidden under music or for the singers turned texters. Yet, this policy came only after we were all forced to learn a lesson, the hard way. In 2012, during our winter concert, a strange beeping sound interrupted the soft, melodious caress of Auld Lang Syne, our all-time best holiday piece. At the end of the song, when our conductor came over to find the source of the sound, a girl right behind me sheepishly raised her hand and squeaked that it was her phone. Our conductor promptly told her to “just leave”, and she walked off the main stage of the Kravis Center of the Performing Arts, in front of an audience of over 2,500 people.
Yet, the unfortunate girl was not the only one who had her phone stashed conveniently in her bra on stage that night. I would estimate that roughly 60% of the singers had their phones on them. Girls constantly asked me whether their iPhones or androids were noticeable underneath their black gowns. Was it truly so unsafe to leave their cellphones hidden in their bags in the dressing rooms? Was it really that essential that they be able to call their parents at any time? I find it far more likely that they simply wanted to use their phones during the time spent waiting in the wings of the stage or out in the hallway. Couldn’t they have merely engaged in conversation with those around them? Or listened to the younger choirs perform?
After the phone debacle, the girl was given a second chance, allowed to remain in the choir even though my conductor had originally refused to allow her to return. Yet, the day of the next concert, when everyone’s phones were confiscated, she decided that she could keep her phone, and then lied when she was discovered. As a result, she was dismissed from the choir and not allowed to perform. Her actions revealed that keeping her cell phone was more important to her than remaining part of an organization that she had been a member of for nearly 9 years.
One afternoon, a girl in my class asked if I had a charger she could borrow. A charger? I didn’t have my phone, much less a phone charger. Yet, those around me quickly got out their own bags, and before I knew it the girl had her pick of chargers. In the teenage world, phones are omnipresent and ubiquitous. According to Ann Louise Gittleman, Ph.D., one study showed that 30% of teens feel depressed when they are parted from their phones. Some sociologists have theorized that a constant desire to be in touch with their friends is what causes teenagers to feel such an attachment to their phones and such anxiety when they are forced to part with them. Others have wondered whether a fear of boredom, an inability to sit still, is what is motivating them instead. On their multi-functioning phones, teenagers can swiftly shift from one activity to the next with a flick of the finger or a scroll of the thumb, often aided by Apple’s “multitasking” feature. Even social media apps, like Facebook and Instagram, are designed so that users constantly shift their attention from post to post as they scroll through their news feed. In the era of rising levels of ADD/ADHD, the phone serves as a constant distraction.
Is this rise in cell phone use a good thing? Is it benefiting our new generation, the first generation of the 21st century? I don’t think so. Phone-addicted, apathetic youth will turn into phone-addicted, inactive adults. Technology has advanced our society immeasurably and, overall, has improved it. But everything must be in moderation, especially cell phones. In the age of evolving technology and changing values, cell phones cannot replace normal social interaction. They cannot compare with the value of a good book, or even just a conversation. When an electronic device becomes more important than a friend, it must be put away. Teenagers must learn when to put down their cell phones. They can’t go through life with their faces buried in their phone. When they finally put them down and look around them, they may be surprised by what they see.
Gittleman, Ann Louise. “Are Teens Addicted to Cell Phones?” Total Health Magazine. December 1st, 2011. The Wellness Imperative People. October 25th, 2014. http://www.totalhealthmagazine.com/features/childrens-health/are-teens-addicted-to-cell-phones.html
Lenhart, Amanda, et al. “Teens and Mobile Phones.” PewResearch Internet Project. April 20th, 2010. Pew Research Center. October 21st, 2014. http://www.pewinternet.org/2010/04/20/teens-and-mobile-phones
“Texting and Driving Infographic.” Texting and Driving Safety. November 18th, 2014. http://www.textinganddrivingsafety.com/texting-and-driving-stats/
Tucker, Kristine. “How Teenagers Have Become Dependent on Their Cell Phones.” Livestrong.com. June 16th, 2013. October 25th, 2014. http://www.livestrong.com/article/1004615-teenagers-become-dependent-cell-phones
Narrelle is a homeschooled teen from West Palm Beach, Florida. In addition to writing, she enjoys singing in a choir and playing piano, and loves literature, politics, history, astronomy, and physics.