Sunday read: Those kids today

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The Washington Post (h/t Longreads) had a fascinating piece a few days ago about a 13-year-old girl and her life in the digital age. Essentially, it all comes down to her phone: checking it for “tbh” acknowledgements (“to be honest,” a compliment), worrying about what will happen on her birthday, and essentially using it as a social lifeline.

Katherine Pommerening’s iPhone is the place where all of her friends are always hanging out. So it’s the place where she is, too. She’s on it after it rings to wake her up in the mornings. She’s on it at school, when she can sneak it. She’s on it while her 8-year-old sister, Lila, is building crafts out of beads. She sets it down to play basketball, to skateboard, to watch PG-13 comedies and sometimes to eat dinner, but when she picks it back up, she might have 64 unread messages.

Pommerening is apparently a good kid: good grades, good family (though she has a hole in her heart; her mother died of breast cancer not long before), good attitude. She’s doing a project on the Photoshop and the media, and I hope she takes its lessons to heart.

But still: Her life seems curiously devoid of actual face-to-face contact (though that may be a choice of the writer, Jessica Contrera), and she’s having to grow up with the entire world watching — or at least that part of the world that has access to her social media apps, which seems bigger than the world I had to deal with almost 40 years ago.

I don’t have children, so I can only imagine the pressures adolescents face these days. On the one hand, I’m envious: When I wanted information, I used to lose myself in the library, reading old issues of Time and Sports Illustrated and poking around reference books. When I wanted access to old music, I had to hit a used record store or listen to a holiday weekend oldies countdown; when I wanted to watch a certain movie, I had to wait until it showed up on TV or at a repertory theater.

But when I screwed up, I’d like to think the photo, video or text equivalent wasn’t being shared all over school — or all over the country. That’s a lot for a budding teenager, flooded with hormones, to deal with.

(For another fine story about a child, read Susan Orlean’s 1992 Esquire piece, “The American Man, Age 10,” here annotated by her and Nieman Storyboard.)

The comments are also interesting. Some seized on the fact that Pommerening is obviously from a well-off household: Dad’s a D.C. lawyer and she doesn’t want for much. But I think they miss the point. There are millions of kids like Pommerening — not all of them as well off — and they’re going to be running things one day. What are they going through now? And how will that affect their attention spans, their social abilities, their behavior in life?

My generation grew up with a lot of television (the three-network + UHF variety). The next was the first to be comfortable with cable, video and computers. Now we’re even more connected. It may not mean what we think — and there are lots of opinions out there — but it probably means something.

Food for thought.


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