How Smart is a Smartphone?

October 03, 2017

Nick Stoneman considers how teenagers navigate their worlds in an age of ubiquitous smartphones.

Whoever came up with the term “smartphone”? I’d like to meet that person. I am not so sure he or she got it right. Why the doubt, you might ask?

Imagine what it must be like to be a teenager today. Sure, the angst, social anxieties, wanting to fit in, discovering a new “face in the mirror” each morning as bodies and self-image evolve and take shape and form – these aspects are timeless and span the generations. Been there. Done that.

But I would argue that the smartphone has exacerbated the travails of adolescence. Our tech-laden existence – the smartphone in particular - has amplified these travails, as the access to social media, which the smartphone offers up so darn constantly, has provided a whole new set of platforms and venues for adolescence’s sagas and challenges to take shape and form.

“Connectedness” is a double-edged sword that ironically polarizes as much as it can bring us together. Popularity is now calculable in likes, in being “friended”, in emojis that usurp words for images – images intended to say a great deal without the inconvenience of genuinely communicating.

Is there a silver lining? Is the social landscape for a teenager now more diverse and able to reach beyond the limitations of her typical “flight paths” within a school day, or the routine of a boarding community? Do friendships endure longer, and new ones get created where they may not have before? Are teens getting prepared for their future work environment’s clear dependency on using social media for professional connectivity and networking – something I have witnessed time and again with our young alumni and my own children as a way of sorting through the job market’s opportunities?

I have often wondered if the introverted child finds a greater voice with the smartphone. Is there a new balance and inclusivity that enables a wider band of students to be heard where there was not a voice before? Is there a fluidity in communication where negativity and social ranking are outflanked by dialogues that engage, question, and challenge? (Or do the anxieties around not wanting to “stand out” still prevail?) Does the ease of reaching out for help, or the ability to offer it, counter the “rabbit hole” of it all?

I can’t pretend to have the answers. I suppose it is somewhere betwixt and between the various benefits and downfalls of smartphones. As has been the case for generations, getting through adolescence and emerging as a confident, focused young adult with a real sense of self and self-worth can only result from having to live through the teen years, experiencing the right blend of structure with independence. This blend calls for the adults’ boundaries and support to sit alongside the angst and stress that comes during adolescence. These years are remarkable – in every aspect of the word – and it is through experiencing them that the essential, core elements of character take shape and form and serve as the foundation from which we all build our lives in the years ahead.

This transformative process called “being a teenager” is common to everyone. Is it made all the more difficult for today’s teens because of the smartphone? Or, going out on a limb, are we all the better for this innovative device? While I am not sure I can make that big a leap, I do believe that at the root of all human social development is communication – the ability and willingness to speak and be heard, to listen and then learn and, ultimately, to grow. Perhaps the smartphone is just the next vital advancement in communication and I am the guy looking through the anachronistic lens of, “Kids these days”! (That would mean I am getting old – and that certainly is not allowed!)

It seems it was not that long ago (but apparently, it was!) that my parents were yelling at my sister to “Get off the phone!” each night. I remember seeing the 20-foot long cord extending down the hallway into her room. The phone was, to them, a significant issue at home. I suppose some things never change. At least now when, as a parent, I am sharing similar sentiments about phone time, I don’t have to worry about tripping on any cords! And therein lies the answer. Being cordless could very well be the smartest part of the smartphone!


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