My hair only has a little gray in it and I don’t get AARP mailings yet, but the truth remains: I am an old person.
It became official after I ranted about kids these days and their phones. I have teenagers and my teenagers have phones, so this isn’t new territory, but a few weeks ago, we were talking about their friends coming over to watch the Superbowl. My kids were asking too many questions — as if they didn’t know how this kind of thing worked. It didn’t seem complicated: there’s food and people and a mildly entertaining televised event, what’s to understand?
I explained how I used to hang out with my friends, how on the weekends we’d play games and watch movies and eat junk food with whoever showed up. It was like I was describing life in a foreign country — their circles of friends don’t do things like that.
I was befuddled, as all confused old people properly are, and I asked what they did instead. How were they supposed to learn to hang out with different kinds of people if they didn’t ever see each other, and do you even flirt?
Just on your phone, came the answer.
They were not kidding. When a bunch of kids arrived at our house later that day, I tried to be a good not-embarrassing parent and stayed out of view. I could hear them talking and laughing, but when I came downstairs I saw that they were all on their phones. Still talking, still laughing — all while looking at their phones.
The old person in me wanted to take all their phones away. And make them take a class on how to have a conversation. And how to have fun without an electronic device. And socialize like I did when I was their age. Because I knew how to do it right.
I didn’t do any of this. I just fumed. And ranted to my aged friends. I started wondering — is what they’re doing harmful or wrong? Or do I just feel that way because it’s unfamiliar? Because they’re using a different way of communicating than I did?
Yes, I worry that the younger generation won’t have rich, satisfying social lives, that they’ll fail to learn important social skills, that they won’t master flirting. But is this also how my great grandparents felt about the telephone? Did my parents feel this way about emails and AOL chat rooms?
The way people interact and connect has changed. Even what people are saying about how it has changed has changed. Five years ago, experts were writing about how all these new means of communication were keeping kids from meaningful connection and how they weren’t developing social skills like making eye contact or reading verbal cues. All the woeful cautions were followed up by five tips for getting kids off their phones.
But we didn’t use the five tips, I guess, because now articles on the subject just accept the change as a fact. The toothpaste is out of the tube, they seem to say, but maybe it’s not actually the end of the world. According to Time.com, teens now prefer texting to face-to-face conversation — but back in 2012 only 41 percent of them had phones and now 90 percent do. So it only follows.
And it’s not just teenagers. We old people are just as bad about looking at our phones when there are people in front of us who we’re supposed to be talking to. We send texts to say things that should be said in person. We lose ourselves in the Facebook Abyss (where none of these young kids even hang out) instead of spending time with people we actually like.
If we want meaningful connection in a time when sending a text is just easier, we’re going to have to want it bad enough to do something about it. We’re going to have to put our phones away. We’re going to have to have conversations even when they’re awkward or difficult. And we will need to make it possible for our kids to do the same — not because phones are bad and don’t have social value, but because there’s something of even greater value. If we’re willing to put our phone down long enough to get it.
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