Commentary

The Child Explains It All

Among my many offspring scattered far and wide in this great nation of ours is a 15-year-old girl who resides in our house, takes meals there, avails herself of the chauffeur service and -- if she’s in the mood -- generally brightens our life. 

I say “resides” because she doesn’t in the largest sense live here. She lives in joint custody between high school and her iPhone. The house is mainly just where the clothes pile up.

The other day, the child and her friends -- for some reason that wasn’t altogether clear -- decided to dress up and have a big covered-dish brunch at our place. It was a most endearing scene as they pigged out and gossiped about the classmates, teachers, siblings and parents who populate their intense, circumscribed little lives. Endless chatter, laughter, intermittent squealing; it was gorgeous. 

Then it all stopped. I ducked my head into the living room to see if they’d all been felled by carbon monoxide or something, only to discover six teenagers, each silently engaging with her smartphone. Now, I get that social media have augmented actual physical socialization, but in this case it seemed to have actually displaced flesh-and-blood interaction by carbon-based organisms decked out in dresses and high heels.

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And so, herewith, we go to the horse’s mouth, a fearless question-and-answer session with the specimen herself. This is a real Q&A with a real teenager. It has been edited only for length.

Me: What the hell is the matter with you?

Child: If you go to the beach, or get dressed up for brunch, and you don’t post pictures of it on Instagram….did it really happen?

Me: So Instagram is like a hostage photo: proof of life?

Child: Yeah.

Me: Explain to me why you take 300 pictures of yourself every day. 

Child: For Snapchat.

Me: Go on…

Child: It’s better than texting, because you can see people’s faces, and it’s better than talking on the phone because you don’t have to have a continuous conversation.

Me: But the selfies are all the same. Why not just have an avatar or something? It seems like such a waste of energy and pixels.

Child: Because you wanna show off how good you look, especially if you don’t go out that day. If you look good and no one sees you, it’s a waste.  

Me: So we’re back in that “the undocumented life is not worth living” thing.

Child: Yeah. And it’s quick. Instead of showing people all your vacation photos, you show them your vacation [as it’s happening] and they can just tap through it.

Me: Do you really give a shit about somebody else’s vacation, and do they give a shit about yours? Really?

Child: A little bit. And if it’s on their Story, it only takes 10 seconds or whatever to look.

Me: And does this make you feel closer and more intimate with people?

Child: No. It’s just a way to keep in touch and make more acquaintances than I normally would. 

Me: Like Turbo Facebook?

Child: Yeah. Like Turbo Facebook.

Me: Your mother goes crazy when she sees you on the phone, especially when you’re doing it while watching a movie, eating, studying, whatever. She says you are addicted to that screen. Are you addicted?

Child: No, because it’s not about being on the phone; it’s about communicating with people. If I could talk [in the flesh] to everyone every day, I wouldn’t need it, but since I can’t do that, it’s a way to keep in touch and keep friendships strong.

Me: But does this friend maintenance have to be like a pulse beat? Why must it be every 9 seconds? Can’t 24 hours elapse -- or 3 months -- between messages with your less close friends?

Child:  I suppose. Well, for Snapchat, you’re speaking to many people all at one time; that’s why it's constant. And on Snapchat, if you start a “streak” with someone, you have to maintain it. It’s like an achievement.

Me: Well, you are a very high achiever. Congratulations.

Child: I’m actually terrible at streaks. I’m trash; I never respond to people. But this shouldn’t be about Snapchat. There’s a whole other dimension to social media.

Me: Yes?

Child: With Tumblr, there’s so many sides to that one outlet: there’s the artistic side, and the “science” side, there’s funny stuff and resources for learning about life -- like life hacks. Interesting anecdotes about people’s lives that you wouldn’t otherwise hear. There’s also this whole atmosphere of tolerance, acceptance and support for people. Positive messages and stuff. Nobody gets cyberbullied on Tumblr.

Me: Not trying to be mean here. Or condescending. But what you’re describing sounds a whole lot richer than when you are in an actual room giggling with your actual dearest friends.

Child: Well, it’s different. It’s not communication. It’s more learning. And entertainment. Looking, not interacting.

Me: Like just plain media.

Child: Yeah, it gives teenagers a place where they are …

NOTE: CHILD HAS TEMPORARILY STOPPED RESPONDING WHILE VIEWING A VINE ON HER PHONE. 

Child:  …understood by other teenagers, where otherwise parents are ignorant or unaccepting, assuring kids that their behaviors are normal or OK.

Me: A comfort zone. A safe zone.

Child: Yeah.

Me: What behaviors? What are you up to? You’re grounded.

Child: Ha. I don’t think that’s funny.

CHILD PUTS HER PHONE IN FRONT OF MY FACE. IT’S A TUMBLR POST OF A GUY WHO MAKES ART BY HAMMERING AND PAINTING NAILS SERVING THE FUNCTION OF PIXELS IN HYPER-REALIST PORTRAITS. LIKE HARDWARE POINTILLISM.

Child: I wouldn’t have seen this otherwise.

Me; What’s the most enlightening thing you’ve found online?

Child: I can’t choose. [I learned about] anxiety attacks. Beautiful buildings I never would have seen. A list of excellent movies, most of which I’d never heard of. Just those pure things of people’s innocent happiness. And just people asking “Is this only me?” and talking about something they do like Googling words they think they know just to be sure. Or quoting excerpts from books and poems and such that I never would have come across, ever.

Me: You like the restoring-faith-in-humanity stuff?

Child: And lots and lots of art. Like this guy who vapes and can make smoke rings in the air, look…

SHE SHOWS ME VAPE-RINGS ART.

Me: Holy shit.

Child: I know. And this quote from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, which I read but didn’t even notice the quote: “I like it when it rains hard. It sounds like white noise everywhere, which is like silence but not empty.”

Me: You’ve shown me tons of really good comedy.

Child:  It’s just clever, clever stuff.

Me: From just civilians…

Child: It’s like these are just normal funny people. It’s heartwarming that you get to experience things you otherwise would not be able to and these people get recognition for being awesome.

Me: And if I understand right, the point is, this is all filtered, and curated and pointed in your direction by people more or less like you?

Child: Yeah.

Me: So it’s not just media. It’s what?

Child: It’s a place where you can find people who can relate to you in anything under the sun.

Me: So let me ask you one more thing. When I actually call you on your Magic Phone, when I dial your number and it rings….why don’t you answer it?

Child: Talking on the phone is scary. In general. Not with you. I just don’t like talking with you.

Me: Go do your homework.

  

16 comments about "The Child Explains It All".
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  1. Lisa Bell from Tivoli Partners, June 6, 2016 at 9:03 a.m.

    Wow, this is enlightening! Thanks for pulling back the curtain, Bob. These teens aren't addicted to their phones, it's just the new normal. As an empty-nester I don't get this kind of close-up. Gotta go -- my phone is ringing. :)

  2. Jim Farina from Farina Consulting, June 6, 2016 at 10:45 a.m.

    I had a similar conversation with my 14 year old daughter. I wanted to see if all of these social platforms and their content actually have any influence on her. The results were mixed based on her interests but the overwhelming theme was similar to yours: they're just tools mostly centered around communication and entertainment. Furthermore, they don't really make much of an impact from an ad pov unless it's something that she's already interested in/likes. For example, I mentioned the recent Taco Bell filter on Snapchat which set all kinds of records and asked if she'd seen it. She said of course and actually played with it for awhile. Then I asked if she'd consider eating Taco Bell the next time she's in the mall and she responded emphatically, "no, I don't like the food." Finally,  I then asked her if any of these things have an influence on her and she said generally not unless it's something she's into at the moment.  Other than that it's mostly for entertainment. A scary thought for all those advertisers throwing big money at the new shiny toy in the window.

  3. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, June 6, 2016 at 11:11 a.m.

    Love her. All true. The only thing they don't use their phones for is to pick up a call and speak. 

  4. Dean Fox from ScreenTwo LLC, June 6, 2016 at 11:52 a.m.

    If you know an adorable, sweet little girl, here’s what you have to look forward to, when these sweet things grow into teens and join the hive mind of The Borg*.  Maybe by then, someone will have developed an app that automatically takes a selfie every thirty seconds, producing and posting a complete stop-motion record of their day.


     


    *The Borg are a fictional alien race that appear as recurring antagonists in the Star Trek franchise. The Borg are a collection of species that have been turned into cybernetic organisms functioning as drones in a hive mind called "the Collective" or "the Hive".

  5. Anglyn Hays from Free Lance Writer Hire Me!, June 6, 2016 at noon

    SOrry, but this does explain why folks that frequent this blog have such a hard time selling to the under 35 crowd.  First, a teenager is not a child, and whoa be to anyone who makes that mistake.  If you don't recall your own teenage years, please allow me to refresh your memory.  Teenagers aren't children nor are they adults.  Applying either standard is a mistake.  An adult making a teenager look like a silly bag of concerns is rather easy to do, especially for an experienced writer like Mr. Garfield.  Ridiculing selfies is so old, like ridiculing bell bottom jeans that the boomers will pay $200 for a vintage pair.  Relax old folks, you have been suplanted by the success of your loins, rejoice, or at least quit whining about it all the time.

  6. Anglyn Hays from Free Lance Writer Hire Me! replied, June 6, 2016 at 12:02 p.m.

    Baby boomers invented the Borg to assuage their broken political ideals and now you ridicule your grandkids with it?  Wow, no sense of shame I guess.  I am doing a full scale review of the Star Trek propaganda if you are interested.

  7. Roger Darnell from The Darnell Works Agency, June 6, 2016 at 12:16 p.m.

    Soooo looking forward to reading enlightened answers as to what it all means and what we as parents and thinking people can do to ensure it's all good. We love our kids but this very accurately described scenario is a daily challenge. But I always think, if I had had this option when I was their age, I would have been right there, too...

  8. Marilois Snowman from Mediastruction, June 6, 2016 at 12:46 p.m.

    What an amazingly self-aware and articulate teenager. Is there an app for that? Thanks for sharing. 

  9. Dean Fox from ScreenTwo LLC replied, June 6, 2016 at 1:05 p.m.

    Generalizations suck!

  10. Harris Turner from WordSentry, June 6, 2016 at 1:24 p.m.

    Our 14-year-old granddaughter lives with us, and as a young woman she could be the star of this story. She's bright, articulate, personable, opinionated, and a general pleasure to be around. And she essentially lives with/for her phone and its content.

    It seems that no matter what social setting we're in (driving to school, eating, with her boyfriend, etc.), when the subject of the future comes up -- any idea what you want to do, where you'll be in 10 years, future education, friends, etc. -- there's often an immediate response of "it doesn't really matter." Now I know she is more introspective than this (we have on occasion spoken of future plans) and you can't apply generalities from a test group of one, but I often wonder whether this preoccupation with instant gratification is beginning to affect her desire and/or willingness to think beyond the very short term.

  11. Mark Van Patten from Retired, June 6, 2016 at 2:03 p.m.

    Nicely done. But must be fiction because who could remember all that? Not a geezer, that's for sure.
    Did you compensate her for providing your content? And none of that "I put a roof over your house..." crapola. She deserves some bitcoin. Or iTunes credit.

  12. Anglyn Hays from Free Lance Writer Hire Me! replied, June 6, 2016 at 3:48 p.m.

    That's the lovely thing about teenagers.  They do provide so much content for us oldsters to use and they never bill us for creative inspiration or our whiny posts.  Twenty years ago we were worried about attention deficit disorder and now we worry they are so focused they ignore us observing them.  If we can't be unhappy with teenagers what is there to be unhappy with?  Good question.  But it is an adultist preoccupation to censor those youngers least they deviate from our genetic instructions.  Garfield is no doubt disappointed they aren't "little Me" knock offs.  I think it is pleasant ride these surprises along the way. 

  13. bob hoffman from type a group, June 6, 2016 at 5:02 p.m.

    Ms. Garfield is obviously a very bright and self-aware young lady. I wonder, however, what all the judging, striving for social acceptance, and self-photography analysis does to the great majority of young women who are not as gifted.

  14. mjc CC from Foreign Language League Inc., June 7, 2016 at 8:38 a.m.

    As a teacher, I would say that this group overall has the attention span of a gnat. What's hot and interesting one minute is out 5 minutes later (no joke).  It's not the communication piece that is important to them, it is the feeling that they are connected, even if it's connected to something that does not represent or interest them. They don't even search this stuff out, it just pops up in front of them, fires the neurons and dumps a bit of dopamine every time, 24/7. The absence of self control, self motivation and self discipline is what concerns me most about this "group". The constant thought of oneself, and not the family and their role in it, or their future, should concern parents and educators. Honestly, they deserve and require a break from media and the screen. I am happy that this father at least got a 2 minute conversation with his daughter. He will remember and cherish that time. We (adults) must be more intentional and purposeful now with our time with our teens, because so much of their time is spent on unnecessary, silly, vulgar, sexualized, and violent content.  It is certainly making teaching and really connecting with students more challenging.  Now, because most of these kids are saturated with media, I am challenged to teach them in "new" and "exciting" ways by intentionally not using media or screens in my instruction. So far results and feedback have been wonderful!

  15. Larry Smith from Live Idea, June 9, 2016 at 4 p.m.

    Almost exactly the same in my home, except it's a boy, gaming and talking on the xBox, the iPad playing video, and the iPhone pinging with Instagram notifications. 

  16. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, June 19, 2016 at 1:41 p.m.

    When you take a sentence/phrase out of context, in some cases a comma, you do know that the meaning of that sentence/phrase can defeat is own words. This constant selfishie generation (has bled into other generations, too) that thinks they have total control over what they see are only going to find they have no control over anything because they gave up all of their own personal information to those who control their devises. What is worse is that their teachers, the older generations have acquienced. Teaching and saying no and showing by example are too hard. Absolutely, no phone, no devise out of a possible dash mounted GPS can be used while driving. 

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