It didn't hit me until after I'd gotten back home, but during my walk around the park today I don't think I saw anyone staring down at a phone. Must've been one or two, but not the ubiquitous pattern that it used to be. The only place with lots of phones out was a baseball game where the parents were taking pictures or video of the game, not browsing an endless stream of "content" to distract themselves from what was going on around them.
What was really striking was the lack of phones among young people. Boomers not endlessly scrolling some retarded feed -- OK, the technology came too late for them to adopt it. But the teenage Zoomers who are internet / digital / social media / smartphone natives? Highly unexpected. And it wasn't just at the park -- it was the same with every small group of them walking down the sidewalks along the streets I drove on. Or hanging out in front of an ice cream parlor. Or really anywhere else.
They were talking to each other while sustaining eye contact (not while staring down at separate screens), observing and commenting on the goings-on around them, making eye contact with the random hot guy walking by, and all those other things that "kids used to do outside before smartphones and the internet".
How long ago was it that everyone was complaining about young people staring down at screens all the time? Well I did plenty of that, so I searched the blog and found out that it was around 2013 to 2015, which means it had already gotten started before then for me to have griped about it, maybe back to 2010. The worst I recall was seeing people with their laptops out at a park, and signs posted all around cheerfully letting people know that there was free wi-fi -- at a park.
Nor could you watch a movie with friends or family, without most of them staring down at a screen and often nodding off out of boredom. Way to strengthen social bonds through shared activities!
Even before smartphones, I remember young people constantly looking at and using their flip phones in the late 2000s -- at bars and dance clubs, coffee shops, the college dining hall, really anywhere that was supposed to be social, not to mention in other places like class.
The late 2010s are more blurry for my recollection, partly because everyone had been so hunkered down during the vulnerable phase of the excitement cycle, there were so few observations of the public to be made. I don't remember feeling this vivid of an impression, though, that phone addiction -- at least in public or social places -- had started to decline.
So what accounts for this shift?
One possibility is the phases of the 15-year excitement cycle. You'd think it should be inversely correlated with energy levels -- higher energy and invincibility, less need for retreating into the cyber-world -- but if anything it is positively correlated with them. Phone addiction was pretty bad during the last restless phase of the late 2000s, and was rampant during the manic phase of the early 2010s, before becoming less bad by the late 2010s. So maybe the phone addicts were directing their high energy levels into texting, scrolling, etc., and are doing so less now because their energy levels are a lot lower than they were 10 years ago.
I don't buy this one, though, because phone addiction should be dropping across the board since energy levels have plummeted across the board. And yet phone addiction does seem to still be a very real problem, just not with the people I'm observing -- crucially, the age groups. It seems like people in their late 20s and 30s are still heavily addicted to scrolling through their various retarded feeds and timelines, using it to supplement their SSRIs without having to fork over a co-payment to Big Pharma (only forking over their life-data to Big Tech).
That suggests another possibility -- generational turnover. Back in the late 2000s, it was Millennials who were constantly looking down at their phones as teenagers, and it was still them in the 2010s when they were aging into their 20s, and they're still the worst even as they approach or already pass the big 3-0. Gen X-ers, especially the later ones, have had cell phones and smart phones throughout that entire time, yet they have never been as addicted to them as Millennials.
But under the view that technology or any kind of progress only ever moves in one direction, the Zoomers ought to be worse than the Millennials. I just don't see that, particularly those born later into the 2000s. (My strict definition of Gen Z would begin at 2005 births, and Millennials at 1985.) If anything, Gen Z seems to resemble Gen X in a kind of swinging pendulum pattern. One generation is attention-craving, they over-saturate the niche for it, so the next generation becomes attention-eschewing, they over-saturate that new niche, so it swings back to attention-craving, and so on.
Side note: it's also uncanny to see how much the Zoomers are dressing like it's the early '90s Gen X heyday all over again. High-waisted pants, ripped jeans, baggy shirts, light / desaturated / pastel colors, center part in the hair, etc. Not at all what the Millennials looked like as youngsters 10-15 years ago -- low-rise, dark-blue, non-ripped skinny jeans, bold color on top, heavy side part in the hair (whether preppy guys or scene girls).
This seems plausible given the Zoomers overall social media usage. They're not engaged with Facebook, Instagram is for older lifestyle hustlers, and nobody born after 2004 will ever GAF about the tard chat du jour on Twitter. Those are the platforms where attention-craving Millennials go for likes and followers.
TikTok and certain YouTube channels (like React) are more their thing, and that is just passive entertainment rather than putting your own thoughts, feelings, images, and videos out there. Maybe entering the chat of a video game streamer, or playing video games themselves. But not so much smartphone-based social media platforms.
That wouldn't mean they are unplugging from the internet, or even using it in non-parasocial ways. Maybe they'll just retreat into playing video games with strangers, which would be parasocial and very-online. But it would not leave the house with them because screaming about how laggy your connection is, is not a behavior anyone would do in public. And phones aren't the best platform for video games. So when they did go out in public, they'd be less tethered to their phones or the internet, although they'd bury themselves in online video games once they got back home.
The final possibility is that this is a broad signal of leaving their cocoons, and that the cocooning era since roughly 1990 is about to reverse and go back to outgoing like it was from roughly 1960 to 1990. The previous cocooning period was the Midcentury, from roughly 1930 to 1960, and the previous outgoing phase before that from roughly 1890 or 1900 to 1930.
This all parallels the trends in crime rates, as I detailed at length on this blog in the early 2010s (along with extensive discussion on the cultural output of outgoing vs. cocooning periods). Briefly, it's akin to a predator-prey cycle in ecology. When people are more outgoing and trusting, they present more opportunities for criminals to prey on, sending up the crime rate. When the crime rate gets so high, it erodes trust and people begin cocooning to avoid omnipresent criminals, depriving them of so many opportunities, and sending down the crime rate. When the crime rate reaches such lows, people see so few predators around, so trust and outgoing-ness increases. That then presents more prey for criminals, and the crime rate rises again, completing the cycle.
Since these phases last around 30 years in each direction, we're due for another reversal (2020 is 30 years after the last peak of crime rates circa 1990).
If this is what's going on, why are Zoomers leading the way, rather than every generation taking part at the same time and to the same degree? Because of formative experiences that differ over the generations. Late Boomers and all Gen X-ers grew up during the last crime wave, so they've imprinted on an environment marked by danger and predation. They have been helicopter parents, trying to prevent their kids from suffering through the same widespread crime that they themselves lived through.
But Millennials have only grown up during falling-crime times, so they are less helicopter-parenting. And Zoomers have grown up in even safer times than that -- they don't even remember the one-time externally caused spectacle of 9/11, like Millennials do. So they won't feel, on a visceral level, what the point is to cocooning away in the home all day long, or why you should put your guard up in public when you do go out. The dangers of going out in public, and letting your guard down, have been receding for a decade or more before they were even born.
We couldn't see this shift before because this critical generation was only 5 or 10 years old, when their public appearance is controlled by their parents. Now that they're 15-20, they're more independent and can go outside if they want, and ditch their smartphone in public if they want.
It's still too early to tell one way or another, but there does seem to be a generational change at least. The only question -- also too early to tell, by a few years -- is whether that is merely a pendulum swinging that will revert to the Millennial-esque mode in the next generation after Zoomers, or this is just the start of a 30-year period of outgoing and guard-down social behavior, to be paired with steadily rising crime rates.