In the morning, on my way home after walking my kids to school, I pass teenagers streaming down Tappan Street toward Brookline High. Among them is a girl who’s always looking at her phone. She’s tall and graceful, I think, although it’s hard to tell because whenever I see her she’s bent deeply forward over the tiny screen held in front of her, a pentitential posture that has become a commonplace sight. The other day she walked right out into the street without looking up. I resist the urge to meddle, but some part of me feels that it’s my duty as an adult to advise her to put away her toy and pay attention to the world.
Tech skeptic — OK, tech crab — though I may be, I recognize that a cell phone now counts as basic equipment for living for many people, including me. And as a father whose kids will soon be teenagers and will eventually own cell phones, I accept that it can be a useful tool, especially for those of us who give our children plenty of freedom to roam the neighborhood and the city. The cell phone is wildly overrated as an emergency safety device — that teenage girl’s phone is more likely to get her run over than it is to save her from some dastardly wrongdoer — but I accept its more mundane utility. There’s a substantial body of reliable research that shows that kids whose parents know where they are and what they’re doing tend to do better in life.
There’s a pat conclusion to come to about all this: Used properly and in moderation within clear limits set down by parents, a cell phone can be a good thing for an older child to have. That all sounds reasonable enough, but it doesn’t fully engage the simple — actually, the very complicated — fact that our adaptability to technology is both greater and less than we think it is: greater because we discount the depth and breadth of our unexamined reactions to phones and other gadgets, and less because we tend to overestimate our conscious command of those reactions. We’re more malleable and less disciplined than we think we are.
Consider a crowded T car running above ground, when all aboard have phone reception. Sitting and standing close together, some people are staring into space or sleeping, and some read good old print on paper. But most are communing with their phones: watching videos, listening on headphones, reading, talking, texting, e-mailing. They’re not just seeking distraction, entertainment, or edification; they cradle their phones as if deriving warmth and comfort from them, and in a sense they are. Cozying up to a phone is an easy, reassuring thing to do when surrounded by strangers.
There are ways in which a T car is a scale model of the larger world, but in most ways it’s actually not much like most of the places you go. The people around you at home, at work, in school, and in your neighborhood are not strangers — or they shouldn’t be.
There’s a lot of anxious discussion about kids not having enough privacy in an increasingly electronic world, but I’m talking about something else: too much of the wrong kind of privacy. When I see that girl on Tappan Street hunched over her screen in the way that phone ads urge us to regard as enviably connected, I see a child learning the wrong kind of aloneness from a teaching machine. Her posture is the very antithesis of streetwise — unaware, in-turned, refusing to observe and engage. And yet, paradoxically, as she short-circuits introspection with electronic noise, she’s also avoiding the kind of alert, ruminative solitude that might do her some good at the start of a school day.
Maybe I’m wrong to assume that she’s just distracting herself. Maybe she’s reviewing Latin declensions or exchanging ideas about democracy with a correspondent in Cairo, in which case I’ve done her a partial injustice. I would ask her, but the shocking intrusion into her electronic bubble would probably cause her to text her friends and parents to report that a stranger had spoken to her in public and to ask if she should use her handy cell phone to call 911.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His column appears regularly in the Globe.