Teens and Phones: Toeing the Phone Line

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Like most healthy adults, I’ve blocked out the majority of my adolescence, and what I do remember can be summed up in only three words: pimples, braces and frizz.

But one incident from this era still sticks with me. I was in eighth grade and I was on the phone with a friend who I hadn’t seen in a few hours. Naturally, there was an endless backlog of topics to cover, everything from algebra to Benetton to Rob Lowe.

This was back in the days before phones were smart, or even cordless, so my end of the conversation took place on an olive-green rotary monstrosity rented from Bell Atlantic and dragged into my bedroom from my parents’ on a fifteen-foot cord. The phone had a pleasant heft in my lap—like a small, obedient dog—and my pinky finger fit perfectly into the coil of the cord. If you, too, grew up in antediluvian times, you will remember the satisfying whir of the dial on these phones. It was as full of promise as the hum of a microwave or the opening notes of the theme song from “Family Ties.”

On this particular night, my mom interrupted the conversation by yelling upstairs: “Five more minutes, and then you need to hang up!”

I rolled my eyes and kept right on chatting, inhaling the delicious grape Bubble Yum scent of the receiver.

Ten minutes later, my mom was at my bedroom door, and now she meant business: “Time to get off the phone.

No ifs, ands or buts.” This was one of her favorite expressions, on par with “That’s the way the cookie crumbles” and “Don’t give me that sass.” (As an aside: what fun it must have been to raise kids in the 1980s! No apologies, no negotiating, and TV dinners were actually considered a legitimate meal.)

Again, I ignored the warning.

Finally, my mom burst through my bedroom door, regal in her powder blue zip-up robe, face shiny with cold cream—an unlikely hybrid of Carol Brady and Joan Crawford. She brandished a pair of kitchen scissors and—snip—cut the phone cord in half. The line immediately went dead. I remember the sound, then the absence of sound, and the hiss of my mom’s voice through her teeth: “I…told…you…to…get…off…THE…PHONE.”

She was not a woman who was accustomed to being ignored. Still isn’t.

These days, I envy my mom and the finality of her grand gesture. My kids’ phones are omnipresent in our house, like those annoying Tomagotchis that buzz and bleep for attention. They require charging, updates, screen protectors, new cases, more data—and in return, they provide an unprecedented level of privacy for their doting caretakers.

I don’t want to further date myself by bemoaning the good old days, but there was a simplicity to my old social life that I can only dream of for my teenagers, hyper-connected as they are. Their lives are on display for all to see—just as other kids’ lives are on display for them—yet so much of what they experience is a trick of someone else’s lens, layered over with a filter and labeled with a clever tag.

This leaves you with an illusion of camaraderie, but few actual memories to show for your observation. The result is an affliction that has no name, and there’s only so much a parent can do to stave it off. 

Like most of our friends, my husband and I have clear rules about our kids’ phones. We made each of them sign a contract agreeing to dock their devices on the kitchen windowsill by 8pm, no exceptions. (No, you don’t need your phone to do your homework. There’s a calculator in the junk drawer.) Each kid’s phone is equipped with Our Pact, an app that disables all other apps at a designated time, or when a phone has exceeded its allotted data, or whenever the spirit moves us to temporarily erase everything from the safety of our own phones.

Talk about the long arm of the law!

Sometimes I feel very smug about our efforts at technology management, but most of the time I feel completely defeated by the whack-a-mole nature of the whole endeavor.

Did you know that you can text from an iPad? And some Kindles? And don’t forget about instant messaging on Instagram, or plain old-fashioned e-mail. It seems like every time I master a new social media, another one is invented! 

Sometimes I wish I could pull out my own scissors and cut it all off. I even have the bathrobe to match.

Back in my day—yes, I went there—you were either home or you were not home. You weren’t connected to your friends twenty-four hours a day. Of course, when I did go out, I wasn’t always where I said I was going to be; I’d tell my parents I was going to a movie when I was really going to a party. 

Kids and parents have been at odds over phones for years. I remind myself of this every time I hold out my hand to collect one, knowing full well that my offspring will view the relinquishment as a kind of amputation. What’s different now is the silence; here are no conversations to be overheard. The phones are a constant presence, but they never actually ring. 

My husband and I are always toying with the idea of disconnecting the landline, which we never answer anyway—and when we do, we’re always greeted with the telltale pause of a telemarketer consulting her script. But yesterday, the phone rang—the cordless one, not one of our four smart ones—and our younger daughter ran to pick it up. I paused, listening to my daughter’s side of the conversation: her hopes for a snow day, her perfect score on a spelling test, a knock-knock joke about a broken pencil. (Punch line: “Never mind, it’s pointless.”). I could tell by the smile in my daughter’s voice that she was talking to one of the only people who ever call the house number—one of her grandparents—and the sound was music to my ears.