It seems like an article comes out every other week about how teens and young adults are using technology: what devices they’re using (and not using), what social networks they’re using (and not using), etc. Companies certainly have a vested interest in this information. After all, the earlier they can sink their “hooks” into consumers, the more money they potentially stand to earn from those consumers. What’s more, teens are particularly fickle and can help identify new and upcoming trends — also something that companies would be interested in as part of their endless pursuit to seem “hip,” “cool,” and “relevant.”
As someone who makes a living in a tech-related field (web development), I find such articles interesting because they often highlight how wrong we can be when it comes to assumptions about how technology is used within our culture. For example, Facebook may be the world’s most dominant social network, but teens are using it less and less — which may or may not present a challenge in the years to come for Facebook as those teens grow up. (And I’ll find it interesting to see if and how Facebook will try to re-engage those users.)
But is there anything about this information that might be interesting to someone who isn’t in marketing, business, or technology? Can it signal deeper, possibly more disturbing cultural trends that might be of greater interest to non-technical or non-business people? Those questions came to mind while reading a recent Huffington Post piece about how a 14-year-old girl and her friends used technology and social media.
Much of the piece delved into how Casey Schwartz and her friends regarded Facebook and other social networks, and the ways in which Facebook, Yahoo, et al. are all angling to get access to Casey and her peers. However, it contained portions that were a bit more troubling, such as Casey’s description of how her circle casually excluded a friend simply because she didn’t have the right gadget:
Not having an iPhone can be social suicide, notes Casey. One of her friends found herself effectively exiled from their circle for six months because her parents dawdled in upgrading her to an iPhone. Without it, she had no access to the iMessage group chat, where it seemed all their shared plans were being made.
“She wasn’t in the group chat, so we stopped being friends with her,” Casey says. “Not because we didn’t like her, but we just weren’t in contact with her.”
Then there’s a bit about how obsessed Casey is with her online presence and how often her posts and photos are “liked”:
Here are just a few of the things Casey regularly tracks: the number of contacts stored on her iPhone (187); the number of people following her on Instagram (around 580); the number of people who’ve asked to follow her on Instagram, but she’s refused to accept (more than 100); the number of people following her Tumblr blog (more than 100); her high score on Dots (almost 400); the number of photos she stores on her phone (363, fewer than before because she’s maxed out her phone’s memory); the number of photos her friends store on their phones (around 800); the number of people she’s friends with on Facebook (1,110) and the number of acquaintances who’ve quit Facebook (three or four). She also uses the app InstaFollow to keeps tabs on who’s unfollowed her on Instagram (she quickly unfollows those who defect).
The most important and stress-inducing statistic of all is the number of “likes” she gets when she posts a new Facebook profile picture — followed closely by how many “likes” her friends’ photos receive. Casey’s most recent profile photo received 117 “likes” and 56 comments from her friends, 19 of which they posted within a minute of Casey switching her photo, and all of which Casey “liked” personally.
“If you don’t get 100 ‘likes,’ you make other people share it so you get 100,” she explains. “Or else you just get upset. Everyone wants to get the most ‘likes.’ It’s like a popularity contest.”
After reading the Huffington Post piece, your first reaction might be to scoff at Casey’s selfishness and narcissism, or to take steps to ensure that your kids never find out about social media. (I certainly wrestled with both of those reactions.) It’s easy to question her behavior, ask where her and her friends’ parents were during all of this, and so on. However, this is just one article about one girl and her friends, not some wide-ranging sociological study, so it might be good to take it with a grain of a salt.
And yet, as a parent who also happens to be fairly tech-obsessed himself, and who works in a highly technical field, I was cut to the quick by the behavior of Casey and her friends, especially the oh-so-casual way in which they ditched one of their friends. It cut me to the quick because I know I’ve been guilty of that same basic behavior. I’ve ignored and dismissed people because I’ve been too caught up in my own tech, or because technology made it easy for me to ignore those around me. And I know other adults — not 14-year-olds — for whom this is true.
I love technology, and I certainly hope to pass that (geeky) love on to my kids, similar to how other parents might pass on their love for sports, cars, or music. But I also want to ensure that my kids don’t become obsessed with the technology in their lives (something I admittedly struggle with). I want to teach them to use that knowledge and passion to be a blessing to others and not simply enforce and strengthen insular social circles, get caught up in popularity contests, mindlessly ostracize those around them… or worse.