AUGUST 5, 2017
I'M a baby boomer. At least as far as most people would care to be concerned, I am. Whether it's a wintry Monday or a summer Sunday, I'm usually up before the sun. I'm a diehard user of rotary telephones and desktop computers. I write letters to family friends I haven't seen in a while, in cursive, and conclude by licking the stamp. In all regards to habitual characteristics that define an individual, I should be receiving my first social security check soon. But I happen to be 16 years old.
Typically, a person born into a generation grows up differently than those who grew up in other generations. And usually, a person can easily identify with their generation. For me, not so much. I may be very much part of Generation Z physically, but my mind was born with the baby boomer mentality.
I often wonder to myself if I was born in the wrong generation. Even though these technologies were from an era prior to my birth, I find myself reminiscing the days of rotary phones and BBSs, the "Internet before the Internet". While a growing number of analog enthusiasts are millennials and Generation Zs, "Western Electric" and "The Bell System" probably don't ring many bells for anyone under the age of 40. Yet, these are the bells that chime within my soul.
This morning I read an article in The Atlantic titled "Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?" by Jean M. Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University. This wasn't the first article I'd read about the effects of mobile technology on children — I'm also a political activist, fighting to save our copper landline network and to publicize the physiological effects of the non-ionizing radiation emitted by wireless devices, such as smartphones, particularly on children. While most people my age will spend much of their free time shopping, playing video games, or most likely, devouring social media, mobile apps, and the Internet as if they were breakfast, I stand alongside 40, 50, and even 60-somethings to document, categorize, expose, and publicize the risks surmounting evidence shows that mobile technologies present.
As someone who was never personally alive in the twentieth century, it's been very interesting growing apart of Generation Z, witnessing firsthand the havoc that mobile technology has wreaked rather than observing it from the outside. Today, most teenagers have smartphones and probably feel naked without them. After all, mobile app developers and mobile device engineers work hard to make sure that their products are as addicting as possible. But is the social destruction that's become so commonplace really because of capitalism?
Although I find that I am usually the exception to many of the social and technological norms of my generation, in a way, I feel lucky. So much of Generation Z has succumbed to mobile technology; many millennials even are addicted to this technology. Because there are few adults now that don't have smartphones and even fewer teenagers who don't, I tend to see things that most people don't; things that maybe a lot of people once saw, but no longer do.
The obvious reason that people use smartphones is simple: they believe that the value of a smartphone is far more beneficial than any negative consequences or risks that might come with it. Today, many people believe that technological progress is good and believe that anyone who disagrees must be a Luddite. But there's a distinction between progress for progress' sake and progress for the greater good. This, I believe, is one of the fatal flaws of mobile technology.
You've heard it before: smartphones have disconnected us more than they bring us together. They're something that can't be got without, yet, they're a public nuisance. Smartphones have quickly become one of the most controversial subjects of the 21st century. But many scientists and health experts, as do I, believe that the ubiquity of the smartphone in most people's lives today comes not from it being innately beneficial, but from things that are often overlooked or ignored by most people.
In 2011, The World Health Organization classified radiofrequency radiation — which is emitted by cell phones, cordless phones, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, smart meters, etc. — as a Class 2B carcinogen, in the same category as toxins such as lead and DDT. Since the 1970s, tens of thousands of reputable studies have shown that there are negative biological effects from RF radiation, even at very low non-thermal levels that the FCC deems "safe", and 70% of today's non-industry funded peer-reviewed science has found. More recently, scientists have concluded that people who begin to use cell phones before their twentieth birthday are 5 times more likely to develop malignant brain tumors throughout their lifetime. Already, brain cancer is now the #1 cancer killer of children. I suppose this is why I cringe every time I see a parent give their child their cell phone, or even worse, give their child a cell phone of his or her very own. Cell phone usage has grown virtually unchecked, with no regards to the physiological or physiological health of a child.
Radiation, however, is only a small part of the story. Smartphones have changed social habits and norms unlike any other technology in human history. The telegraph and even the telephone itself did not even come remotely close to causing the social disturbances in mainstream society that smartphones have come to be synonymous with.
I have to say, even more than being worried, I am sad. An entire generation of children is being robbed of the experiences that previous generations were entitled to. Contrary to the belief typical of those in Generation Z that I should be "jealous" of this technology or that others should be sorry for me for not having it, I find it quite liberating and enlightening to not live a lifestyle that is dictated by texts and social media. In a way, I feel lucky. There aren't many of us left "on the outside", who still appreciate life before the cell phone.
Twenge pointed out in her article that kids are physically safer today than they were maybe thirty or four years ago. I won't deny that. But are we really any better off? In one study, scans of the brains of people using a mobile phone were eerily identical to the brains of people who were on drugs. So it's great that teenage smoking and teenage pregnancies have come down, but I can't honestly say that what has replaced it is any better.
Even though I'm still in high school, I can't fathom how my peers can stare at a screen about as big as the numerpad on a desktop keyboard and not go insane, or how they can be satisfied with the artificial happiness that "likes" and "shares" provide. Perhaps it's because I'm one of the lucky few that has never owned his own smartphone. Regardless, I'm not missing anything. I'd take having a good heart-to-heart conversation with someone, in person, any day to tapping out messages on a device that others expect me to be chained to 24/7/365. I'd take the rich, high-quality, analog texture of a landline phone call any day to a warbled cell phone call where I can hardly understand the other person. I'd take getting together with friends somewhere in town and having a good time any day to spending hours scrolling social media feeds and "liking" and "disliking".
More than anything, values have changed. It's become clear to me that the things that baby-boomers and some millennials held important to them simply aren't as important, if important at all, to those of Generation Z. On the contrary, entirely new values have claimed importance among Generation Z that might seem pointless, almost ridiculous, to baby boomers and millennials. Take, for example, the whole concept of "streaks" on apps like Snapchat. I can't say if I've ever heard of a more ridiculous concept.
This morning, I also read an article about how smartphone use has, unsurprisingly, been correlated with teenage suicide rates. I can't say I'm shocked. But what is the quality of a life that is spent living in 140 characters or less? Are teens today really forging deep interpersonal connections anymore? Or are they just gliding through life, accepting mobile technology as an innate part of life? Screen time is positively correlated with loneliness and depression. It's no secret that people who rely on mobile technology heavily miss out on many of the finer points of life; in a way, they're being deprived of the ability to truly form meaningful relationships with people. They begin to neglect their family and friends. Most importantly, they neglect themselves.
Baby boomers probably, as do I, fail to see the merit of a life that is lived primarily in the confines of a five inch piece of metal imported from China. Values like patience, integrity, and hard work are often lost among today's children. Furthermore, I fail to see how most teens today feel so compulsively that they must "check" their smartphone every two minutes, no matter what might be going on around them. Were they expecting it to turn into a pumpkin? I can't contemplate waiting for the telephone ring, but then again, it doesn't do anything else. My Western Electric 500 may not have fancy buttons or double as a camera, but I definitely don't need to constantly "check it" to see if it's rung. The energetic brash sounds of electromechanical bell ringers form a song that startles and makes little sense to most of Generation Z. But if "progress" means listening for barely audibly vibrations, I'll pass.
I liken Generation Z's idiosyncrasy of fondling their smartphones every two minutes to waiting for the mail to arrive. Only, it's not like that all. I've never sat a day in my life next to the mailbox, waiting for a letter from a friend that might come. I like connecting with people, both through telephone and by mail, but I'll never do things as pointless as constantly head out to the mailbox to peek inside and seek if there's any more mail than there was five minutes ago or sit by the phone in the hope that it might ring.
For years, adults have asked what role our education system has had in the lives of Generation Z. And most public schools, mine included, are not helping. Shockingly, Common Core curriculum promotes using digital technology to "enhance" the learning experience but no longer considers learning to write in cursive an integral or important part of basic elementary curriculum. Is it possible that, forty years from now, I might send a letter to someone, handwritten of course, only for them to send one back to me saying "Got your letter, couldn't read it"?
The Bell System had a knack for effective advertising — not that they needed to, considering they were a monopoly. Two AT&T commercials from the 1970s era stand out to me today. The first enticed consumers to make more long-distance telephone calls in an era where long-distance cost an arm and a leg. But after touting that "Long Distance" was "the next best thing to being there", AT&T moved millions of hearts and undoubtedly hit pay dirt. Second, and perhaps even more impactful, were AT&T's "Reach out and touch someone", which promoted the use of the telephone, in general, to connect with friends and family. Long-distance may no longer cost an arm and a leg, but there are still few things that rival long-distance for second place. Yet, teens today may never pick up their home landline and have heart-to-heart with a distant friend or relative. LOLs and OMGs may be all they know; several months ago, I was shocked when someone almost ten years my senior admitted that she had no clue how to send a letter via the USPS.
Indeed, the social landscape of Generation Z is radically different than anything baby boomers and millennials are, or may have been, accustomed to. I've been to social outings where I witnessed firsthand my peers doing little more than sitting around on their smartphones. When they did open their mouth, it was only to make a remark about something they had "discovered" in some new fandangle app or to entice others to follow them on some channel. Likes and followers may prove useful, but they are far from being an adequate replacement for the tried and true social frameworks of yesteryear. The rest of Generation Z might subscribe to this model, but I don't want to be a part of it.
The atmosphere of Generation Z is also substantially different from its predecessors. Most teens don't remember a time when they, and others, were not reachable anytime, anywhere, and if they do, they don't want to remember it. The call of freedom, of being able to escape from the clutches of communication, once synonymous with leaving your telephone off the hook, has lost much of its appeal to teenagers who live to be interconnected, to be one with technology. On the contrary, a growing number of individuals, myself included, find no qualms with not being reachable at all times in all places. In fact, human nature itself dictates that that is how we live, which is why the smartphone has opened not just cans of worms, but aisles, even whole supermarkets, full of them.
Boundaries themselves have gradually lost their meaning as they have blurred, shifted, and morphed with the times. Some teens think it's perfectly acceptable to share pictures of their breakfast with their followers on a daily basis, which makes me question the sanity of not just the poster but her followers as well. Although information has become easier to exchange, the invisible norms that dictate how and when we share information about others or ourselves has not quite kept up with technological progress. Among other things, this has led to information overload and the unexplainable urge to post pictures, selfies, and autobiographies every half-hour, using a device that most now get up and fall asleep with. Is nothing sacred, even private, anymore?
It amuses me when teens try to get their grandparents to "get with the times". But really, if I won't, why should they? Is antiquity really any cause for alarm? Have today's teens considered that, perhaps, us baby-boomer personas are happy and fine just the way we are? Perhaps it's time the grandparents sit down with their grandchildren, and show them how things were done in the good old days — when people communicated openly and honestly with each other; when you got to know not just friends, but their families as well. Would today's teens be as awestruck at this way of living as today's baby boomers are appalled at Generation Z's way of life.
I'm definitely an oddity in Generation Z. There aren't many people my age who can truly contemplate what it was like to live in an era before smartphones, before social media, and especially before consumer Internet access. That's because it's hard to truly understand the ins and outs of an era you've never personally lived through. And when kids have grown up surrounded by smartphones and social media from an early age, what's to be expected?
Honestly, I'm ashamed to identify as part of Generation Z. Scientists and phycologists alike make blanket statements about us, asserting that we don't know how to socially interact and have forgotten how to live in the moments. But I can't blame them; for one, as a generation as whole, that may very well be true. After all, there are many teens out there who live, almost literally, on their smartphones. But there are very few left like me. And a small speck of light is easily lost in swaths of darkness.
As a high school student, nine out of the twelve months of the year, I am in close proximity with a plethora of minds that are wired completely different than mine. They may believe that my way of living is just as strange as I believe their way of living is. When I'm not a student and I'm not an activist, I contemplate what has happened to our society and wonder to myself if Generation Z will ever wake up — if some minds can be reclaimed from the monotony and sterility of monolithic technological "progress". It's been said many times that you only live once, and I'd certainly hate to live my life confined by the norms dictated by the use of device that was manufactured in brutal working conditions and then shipped around the world in the name of progress and consumption. I believe that people have a choice as to how to live their life. Today's teens can certainly choose to continue to fulfill the stereotype of the typical Generation Z individual. But they can also choose to do as I have done, and bask in the light of a world that has already existed — just one they couldn't contemplate.
It might be traditional to end with pleasing closing remarks, but I think I should, at least for the sake of it, fulfill in some way my role in the unorthodoxy of Generation Z, for conformity is typically what people are partial to. They say that today's youth is the world's future, and to be honest, that scares me. That, of course, makes that statement no less true, but adds weight to it in a way that has called many of us "traditionalists" into action. How the world will turn out in the hands of a generation that has, with few exceptions (such as yours truly), had lost on them the purity, clarity, and value of a life unmarred by mobile technology, is anybody's guess. I can only wonder if there will come a day when my letters will be returned to sender because of "illegibility". Most of all, I wonder if there will come a day when I am all but the only person left with a landline.