In Response To: Your Kid’s Smartphone

Today someone tried to take my photo. Without my permission. On their phone. 2000 me is awed by the technology. 2019 me is pissed off.

My first cell phone was acquired in 2002. I had already graduated high school, age 17. Enrolled in college, my first foray into mobile communication was compulsory. Because I had a job, one of the necessities of adulthood was self-funded. Like everyone else at the time, I got a Nokia 5150. The coolest thing about it was, with the help of the internet, you could spend hours composing monotone ringtones. If you listened close enough, it actually sounded like your favorite song. Brilliant.

This was already a step up from the cell phone I used in high school, an ancient artifact of technology’s past, that I shared with my mom. It flipped open and shut to cover the buttons, and was married to an extremely fragile antenna you had to pull up so delicately for fear you’d snap it in doing so. It’s only purpose was to call someone and to receive calls from someone else. Nothing fancy, nothing beyond the bare minimum, nothing at all like the phones of today. 16-year-old me sitting in the bleachers, using my shared cell phone to call our landline to get a ride home, one of the only purposes it served.

Nobody needs to tell you the ubiquitousness of smartphones – just look around. Regardless of where you are, it is incredibly likely that there is someone staring downward, thumbs racing across tempered glass. These digital devices cost more than computers because they are, in essence, handheld computers, evolutions from the earliest forms of PDAs and BlackBerries, PalmPilots that purported to be the “future,” already banished to the past.

The device I currently use, the one I am using to help me record this blog through voice text, is an iPhone 8, an already outdated model that the eighth graders in my class like to remind me. One student in particular, offers frequent criticisms, his iPhone XR is far reigning superior. Because he is a spoiled brat, he’s filled with a sense of entitlement that is beyond appropriate, but his brattiness does not mean he is incorrect; his phone is better, certainly newer. I’m being shamed for this.

Shaming another for what he or she does or does not have is nothing new. Whether it be clothes (Supreme) or shoes (Vans) or smart phones (see above), the  practice of mocking someone for having less than you do could not be more quintessentially middle school.

Unsurprisingly, you would be hard-pressed to find any teenager walking, under any circumstance, without a smart phone in hand. Admittedly, I find more uses for my smart phone than I ever would have initially thought when I received my first iPhone about a decade ago. Now, it is far easier to navigate the world, check in on social media, post to Google Classroom via my handheld device than it is by way of my laptop. This efficiency, however, comes with the price. What are we sacrificing at the cost of convenience? The short answer? Our children and, quite frankly, their innocence.

As a conscientious parent, I try as hard as possible to not use my device while I my child is present, and it’s damn hard. Of course, there are times where I feel that it is unavoidable. Heck, if I were to leave my house and get within 5 miles and realize that I have left home without my device, I’m turning around to get it. I used to have no excuse other than the desire to have it, but now I offer the fact that I am emergency contact for my child, and of course I cannot be without it. I have chosen to separate myself from the mainland by cutting the cable to a used-to-be traditional home phone. More the reason, clearly, to stay connected to my device, at least physically.

As a conscientious parent, I try as hard as possible to not use my device and I have my child. Of course, there are times where I feel that it is unavoidable. Heck, if I were to leave my house and get within 5 miles and realize that I have left home without my device, I’m turning around to get it. Are used to have no excuse, but now are use the fact that I am emergency contact for my child, and of course I cannot be without it. I have separate myself from the mainland by cutting the cable to a traditional in-home phone. More the reason, clearly, to stay connected to my device, at least physically.

My students on the other hand, are more connected to each other than ever, yet could not be further apart. You’ve all seen them: the group of similarly-dressed teenagers, gathered around a bench at your local shopping mall, sitting together, laughing and smiling, while staring at their screens. Likely, they are celebrating their togetherness with complete social isolation. It’s as though they’re saying let’s be together, but not interact in anyway that is human.

No. Human interaction? That is so 2005. Gross.

Friendships have evolved into something totally different in the digitally-connected age. More disconcerting is the evolution of frenemies, gasoline fires fueled by social media.  The unwinding of the social fabric is even worse, made threadbare by constant interaction with smartphones. Although they can only be part of the blame, the rapid decline in student behavior is at least somewhat attributed to smartphones. Such a change, as monumental as it is, has only taken place, in my observation, within the past decade.

The average student 10 years ago would start their day like any other kid. Probably hitting snooze a couple of times, maybe even being jostled awake by his or her parents, but eventually, he or she gets out of bed to start their day. Let’s call our imaginary subject Clark. He is an eighth grader at his neighborhood school, all-around average American adolescent.

When he sits down for breakfast, he’s not thinking about social media. His mom makes breakfast, or his dad does if his mom goes to work early, but he sits down with his family to eat. He has a cell phone on his parents plan, but with very limited minutes, texts at a per-use fee. It’s probably still upstairs charging, and he forgets it at least once a week. He hasn’t given it much thought since the night before when he plugged it in to charge. Purposed for an emergency, to call his parents for rides, and occasionally, call a friend at school if he’s absent, he rarely goes over his allotted minutes.

Zipped inside his backpack front pocket, the phone remains there for the entirety of the day. There’s no need for it. Clark’s classwork is on paper, or the computers that he uses in class are sufficient for whatever task he is assigned. He doesn’t even own headphones.

During passing period, when trying to retrieve his history textbook from his locker, Clark can’t help but notice that the lock is stuck as he’s tried repeatedly to break it loose. He begins to struggle publicly as the lock won’t budge. As his anger increases, he begins to hit on his locker, turning heads. To a casual observer, he probably looks upset, maybe even a bit crazy. Another student, Clark’s friend Alec, sensing his dismay, walks over and begins to help him with his locker until they can, together, open it up to retrieve the book.

They walk to class, Clark slightly embarrassed with himself, but he doesn’t give it much thought once he enters his next period.

In 2019, the scenario looks a little different.

As soon as the sun rises, if not before, Clark’s already on his phone. He stayed up until 1 AM watching Netflix and Youtube gaming videos. He has managed to check to see if his Snapchat streaks have remained intact, already played through few rounds of Fortnite (half of which he wins), and checked in on his group chat. He notices his battery is down to 25%, still – or is it already? He will have to bring his charger to school today, and charge it during passing –  or, find some teacher kind enough to let him charge it at the back of the room. If Clark can’t find a teacher, he will just charge it in the plug and hope that no one notices. Covering it with his backpack may fool the watchful eye.

There is no such thing as breakfast as a family. Between checking emails and texting friends, each person goes unnoticed, tiny islands in the familial archipelago. The breakfast table is no longer a place for conversation but rather a dumping ground for whatever piece of life’s debris should grace its surface.

The car ride is no different. With headphones on, Clark browses through Spotify playlist in order to determine what song to play next. Each song blares.

Upon arriving at school, the hallways are electric, alive with conversations of YouTube videos, gossip about seven social media posts, or, most rare, discussion about something remotely school-related.

No sooner than Clark makes it halfway down the hall then he is a texted by Alec. “Where R U at” it says. He ignores the bad grammar, doesn’t even notice it, texting back “On my way to first period C U during passing.”

During class, he dares only sneak to view his phone four or five times. This particular teacher is a stickler for a device-free setting. If he gets caught one more time, he’s going to get a call home and his parents will have to pick up his confiscated phone. He doesn’t want that to happen, but is really curious to see how many likes he received on his latest Instagram post. Surprised to find that there’s only 32 likes after the first hour, his heart sinks. In his mind, he should’ve had at least 50 likes by now. Clark’s selfie game is strong. Maybe people are lagging today. Or, worse yet, maybe they just didn’t actually like his post.

When the bell rings, he does as promised, meeting up with Alec beside his locker. They talk a little bit about the test they’re going to have later, but it’s no sweat. Someone shared a Google Doc, and most of their conversation centers around their after school plans: video games. Arriving at his locker, he can’t help but notice that it’s stuck. The normal combination won’t crack his academic safe, it won’t budge. He begins to feel a bit embarrassed, Clark’s face heats with the eyes of his schoolmates. Why won’t his locker work? This usually isn’t a problem. In his frustration, he can’t even notice that he has begun banging, loudly at that.

His so-called friend Alec, the one who is so eager to meet him during passing period, impulsively pulls out his phone. Because he thinks this moment is too funny to miss, he begins to record it to be added to a Snapchat story. The entire time, he can tell that his friend is frustrated, but this is comedic gold. Alec’s a meme god. He can already tell that people are going to definitely like this on his story. Maybe he’ll post it on Instagram, too.

While Clark was in class just 20 minutes ago, he couldn’t wait to get more likes on Instagram. Little does he know that he is going to be the school’s Internet superstar for the afternoon, posted and reposted on private, public, and spam accounts. Before he’ll even leave school that day, he will have earned his friend well over 200 likes at his own expense.

The prevalence of social media on smartphones doesn’t sound so good to him anymore now does it? He’s liked, but at what expense?

This scenario, although fictional, is all too real. With quick access to such devices, nothing is sacred anymore. One’s personal embarrassment becomes public. Once public, it becomes someone else’s boost in popularity, enabling kids like Alec to climb another round in the social hierarchy. This is our new normal.

Increasingly resentful, situations like this are not rare in my own school. Obsession with documentation, making the personal public, is truly ingrained within the brains – and smartphones – of the students I teach.

The ultimate lack of privacy is what concerns me the most. Anything can make it onto social media, and I find myself preoccupied by this as a teacher. On numerous occasions, I have become the subject of students’ photographic attempts. Denouncing such attempts, I find myself saying, “I am not at all flattered by your need to photograph me. What makes you think it’s okay to take someone’s likeness without permission?”

Threatening to take phones away, or even actually physically removing them from the student, rarely helps. They learn nothing from the experience. Disrespect and lack of boundaries is commonplace.

Alternatively, I’ll say something like “We are not playing paparazzi right now.”

Students find me funny or entertaining, maybe, or I’m just going to be the subject for their meme-ification later, capturing my likeness on their smart phones, in any capacity, it all makes me increasingly uncomfortable. My likeness is just that. Mine. It never even occurred to them to ask my permission. They believe that because they have access and interest that it is suddenly acceptable to you make a forever memory of any situation.

Every persona is public, and you are only one Snap away from fame, but do you even know when it’s happening? Our students, who are definitely digitally native, are not necessarily digitally literate. Moreover, they lack the proper etiquette. Can we fault them when we don’t teach them? It’s like putting young people behind the wheel without a license. The danger, folks, is real, and we may all be casualties on the internet highway.

3 thoughts on “In Response To: Your Kid’s Smartphone

  1. I agree with so much of this! And I don’t know the answer. I often wonder why parents have given up all control and don’t guide their children more. My 15 yr old has an iPhone (that he bought and paid for with his own money, because I wasn’t going to buy it), but it’s so locked down he can’t do much besides phone, text, and listen to music on it. And he turns it in when he comes inside. It seems very clear that smartphones and addictions to smartphones are causing a serious mental health crisis among young people. I just don’t know why adults act like it’s inevitable and they have no choice but to say yes to kids’ demands for expensive phones and all the social media apps! The privacy issues are also serious. Lots to think about here in your post!

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  2. Your post shows that you KNOW this age-group so well. All the specific details make this group come alive for the reader. You end by saying: Can we fault them when we don’t teach them?
    As an educator, I hope you keep discussing this topic with your students. Ask them. Listen. LOTS. I know when I include my students in the discussion, they feel respected and heard and start to understand the concern about technology use in the 21st century. While it is easier to just be dismissive and act as tech parole, I believe the education comes about when all involved can discuss this important issue. Thanks for sharing a vivid portrait of a HSer today.

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  3. Our union sent out a survey earlier in the year asking about photography/videoing of teachers by students. The thought of it is really creepy. And sad. My 6th graders are on the cusp of the phone obsession – though at conferences we had a lot of discussions about Google Hangouts. On the other hand, we just read “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury. I hope they will see the relevance to today.

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