The mobile phone – a bridge and a barrier

Writing for teenagers is something that comes pretty easily to me. It seems like somewhere in my head I’ve still got access to my thirteen-year-old self, my fourteen-year-old self and all those other selves, so I can put myself into my teen characters and see the world the way they see it.

The widest gulf between my own experience of being a teenager and that of today’s teens is their 24/7 connectedness to their peers. When I was a teen there were phones: landlines that belonged to your parents or public phone boxes you had to have money to use. And those landlines didn’t come with contracts that included all the calls, so your parents were likely to tell you to get off the phone because they’d have a huge bill in exactly the same way as parents complain if you use all the hot water or turn the heating up instead of putting on a jumper.

If you met someone and gave them your phone number, not only did you have the agony of waiting to see if they were going to ring you, it was also quite likely that your mum or your dad or, worse still, one of your siblings, would answer the p800px-Red_telephone_box,_St_Paul's_Cathedral,_London,_England,_GB,_IMG_5182_edithone and then they’d know. And the phone was attached to the wall, so you’d have to talk somewhere where any of the other members of your household could overhear you. And then later, there were the long walks you’d take to phone boxes your parents would never pass, just so your calls could be private.

It’s so much easier to break into someone else’s social bubble today. You send a friend request. You follow them. You comment. You post something you think they’ll respond to. Hey presto! You’ve made a tiny step towards them without actually exposing yourself. They can ignore you or they can respond. How much easier than asking for someone’s phone number, or making that first awkward phone call, when you don’t really know each other and haven’t really got anything to say.

But what’s hard, it seems to me, is when you start to rely on the social network in your pocket to the extent that you stop looking up; when you walk into new situations and immediately get out your phone and start commenting, instead of looking around, catching people’s eyes, smiling, opening yourself up to the new social group. It’s easy to hide behind your phone. It’s comfortable with the group you already know. Who wants to throw themselves into the awkwardness of starting a conversation with people they’ve never met?

So here’s how I see it. That mobile device in your pocket has changed the way people relate to each other. It can be a bridge between people, a way into new relationships that’s so much easier and less exposing than the way things were when I was a teen. What a gift for the shy, the self-conscious! But it can be a barrier too, a shield to protect yourself from rejection in a new situation, a shield which stops people from approaching you. 

I wonder how different my teenage life would have been if we’d had mobile phones and social media? When I try to imagine it, I find I can’t even begin. I don’t suppose there was ever such a vast change in social behaviour in such a short period of time before. Today it seems that all social interaction relies on this media that didn’t exist back then. To write fiction today and ignore this aspect of our lives, you have to set your book in another time or another world or another society.

Hmm… maybe I need to time-slip a teen back to a time before mobile phones… Interesting…

Claire Watts

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