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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.