At a panel discussion last month about young people and technology, the most telling moment came towards the end, when someone in the audience raised her hand. She worked for an organisation that recruits numerous young volunteers, she told us, and one of the questions they always ask at interviews is: “What are your hobbies?”. For the first time not long ago, a 16-year-old girl had responded: “Going on my phone”.
There was a collective, sharp intake of breath among the audience, most of us of generations who remember life before the Internet. We may be just as attached to endless scrolling, and just as afflicted by powernoia as adolescents; but unlike them, we automatically think that’s a bad thing.
Maybe we’re judging too quickly. A teenager who thinks of her phone as a hobby could be watching films (or making them). She might be learning new things, not zoning out; expanding her circle of friends, not losing the ability to socialise. According to the 17-year-olds on a new Exposure project we’re running, young people form close friendships with people they meet online (and may never meet in real life). The online world, they say, is a way to find your community and to pursue and explore your interests. Discovering new music, for example.
But they’re also fully aware that relationships formed online can be superficial, that sending naked selfies is risky, and that an Instagram account is no real measure of what a person’s life is really like. They’re horrified when their mums join Snapchat, but they also listen to parental advice on how much to trust people they meet online.
Actually, some teens say their parents spend even more time than they do on their phones. I’m not sure if that’s the case, but if use of Facebook is any measure, older adults are clearly not far behind. Even pensioners are getting sucked in: a quarter of all over-65s in the UK now use social media. It’s hardly surprising that young children, seeing what’s grabbing our attention, want to play too. The average child now gets their first smartphone at 10 years old.
But if we’re teaching our youngsters such habits from the day they’re born (Adam Alter, author of a recent book on our obsession with devices, says he’s so worried about the effect of this on young children that he never uses his phone in front of his one-year-old son), there are signs of, if not quite a backlash, a countercurrent.
Emma Gannon, the 20-something year-old author of ‘CTRL ALT DELETE: How I grew up online’ acknowledges that the Internet shaped her life in exciting ways, but says it’s generally bad for creativity: “Scrolling is the death of everything”, she told the audience at last month’s event. “If you have a dream, go and do it — everyone else is busy on their phones.” (Maybe they’re busy watching the viral videos telling us to look up from our phones. 60 million views for Gary Turk’s version — the irony!) Gannon even reckons that nowadays, not being always online could become the new cool. I’m not sure, though, that the new trends in digital detoxing and old-school Nokia handsets will spread to the school corridors. And as we all know, being genuinely cool is hard work; most of us never quite succeed.