The XX Factor

Is the Phone Really Better than Facebook for Kids?

In the NYT ‘s Style section on Sunday, Hillary Stout asks whether social networking and I.M.-ing are changing the nature of kids’ friendships. It’s a great question about which as yet there is little research, as the piece makes clear. My own sense from the reporting I’ve done for my cyberbullying series ” Bull-E ” is that the answer is yes, but in multiple ways that don’t fit neatly into a Technology Is Bad diagnosis (which is what much of the analysis reaches for). For some kids who are facile with Facebook, etc., it’s a means of more intimacy and practically constant contact (for better or worse-one friend recently told me about a teenager who leaves Skype open all afternoon so she and her friends can video chat while they do their homework, etc. Excessive!). For other kids, sitting at the computer is a way to distance themselves from real human beings. And then there’s the problem of how I.M. and e-mail hit teenagers in a developmental weak spot , lending itself to callousness and to ganging up on a weak kid .

But in the rush to understand (and condemn) the new world of teen texting, etc., it seems to me we’re often weirdly and falsely nostalgic for our own 1970s to ‘90s adolescence. Stout quotes NYU psychologist Lori Evans saying wistfully, “When we were younger we would be on the phone for hours at a time with one person,” and then disapprovingly, “Facebook is not a conversation.”

Ah, but in my house growing up those hours-long phone chats were cause for serious parental consternation. My dad used to get on the line to say, icily, ” You will see her in school tomorrow ” before forcibly hanging up. That time spent chattering away-what exactly was so precious about it? And isn’t Facebook, in fact, sometimes very much a conversation?

Yes, it’s crazy that half of American kids send 50 or more text messages a day, according to the Pew Research Center. But I’m not sure they’re wasting more of their time. My dad would say they’re just wasting it differently.