When I was 15, my parents got me my own phone line, attached to a mustard yellow Princess phone that matched the faux bamboo furniture in my bedroom. It was surely the high point of my adolescence. For my family, it represented the liberation of the household line from the siege of my protracted conversations, often conducted sitting on the kitchen counter while winding the cord compulsively around my feet. This was in the late 1970s, when curlicue cords were standard and “call waiting” beeps had not yet begun rudely interrupting conversations everywhere. For me, that phone was the key to privacy and independence, a symbol of all the connections I longed to make with my peers.
I spent hundreds of hours on that phone, talking mostly to people I had just seen at school. Our discussions centered on the mundane details of teenage life: who liked whom, who’d been grounded, what we planned to do that weekend. But we also shared deeper concerns: anger at our parents, worries about friends drinking too much, dreams of the colleges we’d soon attend. Above all, the conversations were sustained and intense, and they made us focus exclusively on one another. I can remember talking to my dear friend Laura, whom I’d met at camp, or my first boyfriend, David, until I was practically asleep on the line, murmuring good night and letting the receiver drop against the bed.
I learned many things from those phone calls: who my real friends were, the importance of listening, how to memorize long strings of numbers. But mostly I learned how to have a conversation—an art, paradoxically, that is dying now that everyone always carries a phone with them.
My eldest child is 15 now, and she’s had her own phone since she was 11. In fact, in our house—as in many others I know—a cell phone has become the de facto fifth-grade graduation gift; already my third-grader can hardly wait. Today’s can’t-live-without item for teenagers is a laptop, which we finally broke down and bought our daughter after months of relentless haranguing. (Now I must apologize to my own mom and dad, for driving them crazy about that phone; I know how they felt.) I recognize that the laptop feeds the same desire for her as the phone line did for me: to shut out one’s family and enter into the private world of peers. To grow up.
But the truth is, while she excels at texting, emailing, instant-messaging, watching TV, listening to her iPod, and doing homework all at the same time, my daughter is not very good at talking on the phone. Recently she had to return a call from someone asking her about a babysitting gig. As the phone was ringing, she turned to me, panic-stricken, and whispered, “What do I say?” For her, and for her younger brother and sister, there’s something acutely discomfiting about talking in real time. They prefer the detachment of a keyboard. And I worry that they are missing out on an essential life skill—not to mention a key pleasure—by communicating with multiple peers in digital shorthand rather than engaging in a focused conversation with just one.
A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that teenagers between age 12 and 17 communicate with their friends most often by texting; 54 percent connect with their peers that way every day, compared to 38 percent who call and only 33 percent who talk to them face to face on a daily basis. Indeed, fully two-thirds of teen texters say they are more likely to use their cell phones to text than to call. Yet when they do use their phones to call, it is often to reach their parents—most likely, if my experience is any indication, to ask for a ride or permission to go somewhere with friends. In fact, 94 percent of teenage cell phone users say having a mobile phone gives them more freedom because it allows them to reach their parents at any time.
Now, I’ve become a pretty adept texter in my middle age, and I often text my children (especially if I know they are in class—or at a movie). But when I really want to find out what they’re up to or how they’re doing, I call. I can instantly deduce volumes from the tone of voice and the background noise: he’s hanging out downtown with the bad seeds, she’s not having fun at the pool party.
It’s a skill I began developing during my teenage talk-a-thons, when I could tell at the first “Hello” whether Laura had been crying or if David’s mother was in the room. Back then, I treated each phone call not as a multitasking opportunity or a way to convey information, as my children do, but as a pathway to intimacy, a chance to lock in with another human being and establish a singular connection.
Those conversations paved the way for a lifetime of phone calls, often pre-scheduled for a certain day or hour, that have allowed me to stay in steady touch with loved ones no matter how far I’ve roamed. In college, I turned down the music long enough each week to bring my parents—and my old high school buddies—up to date on my latest academic and social adventures. When I moved to the Midwest for my first job and then later to London, the phone was my ballast as well as my line, keeping me stable and linking me gently but firmly to home turf.
My children will never know that experience.
I have listened in horror from the next room as they answer the phone: “Hi, Grandma!… Good…Yeah… Uh-huh…” Then silence, as their eyes drift back to whatever screen holds them in thrall. I rush in. “Turn it off and talk to your grandmother!” I hiss. But they don’t know how.
Susan H. Greenberg is a writer, editor, teacher and author of the blog Unvarnished Mom.