Adolescence and the Pings, Not Pong
Adolescents have been offered a license to post without any accompanying ethical framework. Is it fair to blame teens for misusing tools that didn’t exist in our childhood? If I had been given a phone with an ability to take and post pictures when I was thirteen, I would not have photographed many things to be proud of. What kinds of public mistakes would I have made if emboldened by this new possibility?
We are now all engaged in what sociologist Erving Goffman calls “the arts of impression management.” Thanks to social media, adolescents are often forced to grow up in public at earlier ages and stages. They are embarking upon an ancient challenge, to know thyself, while broadcasting each awkward step along the way. Is it fair to criticize the young for not acting more maturely? Today’s pings are just a more sophisticated version of Pong. As one of the original video games, Pong was slow, methodical, even predictable. And yet we loved it. Pong didn’t require much sophistication.
The speed could be shifted, but the rules remained the same. Hit it back. The game could be locked in place, stuck in an endless loop. One could walk away for a while and nothing would change.
Take an eye off the screen, a hand off the controller, and one may not even lose a point. Today’s teens are playing ping, not Pong. Pings are those beeps and blurps that tell us we have a new message, a new update, a new headline to consider. Pings are the notifications that float across our screen all day long. They are rooted in instant messaging and constant connection.
In this excerpt from Jay Y. Kim’s book, Analog Church, the author shares about an experience at a local restaurant after being convicted of his own smart phone use at home, keeping him from being present with his family:
… I was having lunch alone. The restaurant was near a local high school which has an open campus policy, so shortly after I sat down to eat, several students began to file in together for a quick bite before heading back to class. Once again, I’d been on my phone—this time actually checking email. But when I saw the students walk in, I decided to people watch for a while, paying special attention to how they would interact while sharing a meal. What I saw saddened me but did not surprise me.
In total, fourteen students ate at that restaurant during the lunch hour, all of them sitting in friend groups, not a single one of them alone. And in total, thirteen of them had a phone in their hands for the vast majority of the time, occasionally looking up to chat with one another, but for the most part, losing themselves to their digital content, all while sitting so tantalizingly close to other actual human beings.
They were, in the words of Sherry Turkle’s aptly titled book, “alone together.” Entranced by the endless sea of digital possibilities, these kids were missing out on the very unique gift of analog presence surrounding them. While they were busy communicating with the digital world (many of them sending texts and Snapchat messages), they were squandering the opportunity to commune with the real people in their midst. This is what community often looks like in the digital age. Lonely individuals falling prey, over and over again, to the great masquerade of digital technology—the ability to lull us into a state of isolation via the illusion of digital connection.
Extending Ourselves into the World
Those who insist we are even more self-centered today might point to how the titles and focus of our popular magazines have shifted, as photographer Fred Ritchin notes: “I always use a quote by Paul Stookey (of the singing group Peter, Paul and Mary) about popular magazines. They used to be called Life (about life), then it was People (not about life, but just about people), then it was Us (not even about all people, but just about us), then it was Self (not even about us). It’s a question of how we extend ourselves into the world.”
As we have focused further on our own image and needs, we may have lost fundamental notions of what “we the people” means. My anecdotal experience of teens suggests that they may not inherently want an education, a church, and a media that is “all about them.” Yet those who’ve come before us have increasingly asked, What’s your status?
At the end of our efforts to self-actualize has arisen an identity crisis. Our ability to update our profile pictures ad nauseam hasn’t resulted in more security. Instead, it has riddled us with questions: How do I look? Do people like me? Does anybody care?
Happiness Levels in Children and Adults
There’s a cartoon that makes a profound statement about happiness. The first panel shows happy schoolchildren entering a street-level subway station—laughing, playing, tossing their hats in the air. The next panel shows middle-aged adults emerging from the station looking like zombies—dull, joyless, unenthusiastic. A study indicates that children laugh an average of four hundred times daily, adults only fifteen. So what happens between childhood and maturity that damages our capacity for happiness?
I have some fond memories of my childhood and the idealistic dreams of my early life. But by the time I was a teenager, I was disillusioned and empty—though most who knew me wouldn’t have guessed. I grew up knowing almost nothing of Jesus, God, the gospel, the Bible, and the church.
My father owned taverns and operated Alcorn Amusements, which supplied and serviced game machines for taverns. Before computers and video games, I grew up in a home filled with foosball and pool tables, pinball and bowling machines. I even had two jukeboxes in my bedroom. (My house was a popular place for my friends to hang out!) These amusement machines were designed to make people happy . . . yet nobody in my family was happy.
“I’m With You”
Sometimes in our adolescence what we need most is just someone to stick by our side, even if we make some rather hasty decisions. In this short excerpt, Bob Goff tells a story from his own teenage years where a Young Life leader was willing to simply walk alongside Bob even as he made a rather rash decision leave his home and move to Yosemite National Park:
When I was in high school, I met a guy named Randy. Randy had three things I didn’t have: a Triumph motorcycle, a beard, and a girlfriend…I wanted all three in ascending order…Later I heard that Randy was a Christian and worked with an outfit called Young Life…Randy never offered me a ride on his motorcycle, but he tried to engage me in discussions about Jesus. I kept him at arm’s length, but that didn’t seem to chill his interest in finding out who I was and what I was about…I was a lousy student…My plan was to move to Yosemite and spend my days climbing the massive granite cliffs.
At the beginning of my junior year, I decided it was time to leave high school and make the move to Yosemite. I had a down vest, two red bandanas, a pair of rock climbing shoes, seventy-five dollars, and a VW Bug…More out of courtesy than anything, I swung by Randy’s house first thing on a Sunday morning to say good-bye. I knocked on the door and after a long couple of minutes Randy answered. I gave him the rundown on what I was doing…“You’re leaving soon?” he asked when I had finished. “Yeah, right now actually.”… Randy kept his earnest and concerned face, but he didn’t say a word … “Hey Bob, would you wait here for a second while I check something out?”
“No sweat, Randy.”
Randy disappeared for a few minutes into the house…When he came back to the door, he had a tattered backpack hanging over his shoulder…and a sleeping bag under his other arm. He was focused and direct. All he said was this: “Bob, I’m with you.”
Teenagers and Their Phones
A quarter of American teenagers are connected to a device within five minutes of waking up. Most teenagers send one hundred texts a day. Eighty percent sleep with their phones. Forty-four percent do not “unplug,” ever, not even in religious services or when playing a sport or exercising. All of this means that during the dinner hour, the typical American family is managing six or seven simultaneous streams of information.