Published March 14, 2014
Pop Quiz: Which event stunts emotional growth more significantly: Standing awkwardly at a school dance; working up the courage to talk to someone; or failing to go to the dance at all, limiting conversation to a text?
This is not the “Would You Rather” quiz you may imagine.
“Breaking news” at Slate Magazine indicates that many school dances in a New York school district have been canceled due to lack of attendance, which may be a trend across the country. The writer, Caroline Moss, a graduate from that area, writes an obituary of sorts, speculating on the cause of death of such social rites of passage.
“… [E]veryone would rather be home texting, Facebook messaging, or Snapchatting each other,” Moss surmises.
“[I]t's no surprise teenagers are much more selective when it comes to their real-life interactions. Whether those activities are parties or movies or trips to the mall, they can quickly become adult-free, unlike the school gym. Which is why texting has become far more exciting than anything a school dance can offer.”
And so in search of unregulated speech, of a sort, teens retreat to a world reduced to the virtual thrills of flat, 2-D entertainments at best.
Napoleon Dynamite would never understand. In the 2004 cult-classic, a chronically awkward Napoleon -- played by Jon Heder -- explores his personal "skills" in an attempt to make a connection in high school, showing up at the school dance resplendent in a second-hand, baby blue tux, and eventually winning the respect of his classmates as he transforms from shy observer to gawky star – of his own life. He conquers his social fears in the face of teenage angst.
Perhaps what is missing in today’s socialization of our youth are “skills” – the skills of conversation, of graceful social failures and of the thrills of breathless conversation – with people we can see and under the watchful eyes of adults who care about the outcome.
No one masters human interaction in a moment. Such mysteries require time in the labyrinth of conversation. And if teenagers feel artless navigating the differences between men and women under a shiny, spinning ball, imagine the chagrin of grownups who are still working to figure it out.
Awkward moments in high school form their own sort of prerequisite for “real” life … by which adults usually mean that they, too, feel like dorks but have learned to hide it better through practice.
Conversation is the art of talking and listening, not a platform for speechifying or a template with a 140-character limit. There’s communication even in pregnant pauses, underscoring the momentum of a real connection.
A Kaiser Family Foundation study indicated that teenagers spend more than 7.5 hours engaged with media, whether that is television, music, video games, time on the Internet or the phone. In fact, it determined that more than three in four teens own cellphones. I would like to meet the fourth. I had no idea the Amish population was so large.
Perhaps parents need to follow through on their threats of a phone “timeout” in favor of those rituals of conversation that occur during a family meal, or while commuting together, or over that first cup of coffee.
Perhaps it’s time to insist on the return of family dinnertime, to practice those skills of thoughtful interaction ... and maybe even table manners.
Psychology Today reports that teenagers who eat regularly with their families “are less likely to engage in illicit behavior involving drugs and alcohol and more likely to get better grades and be mentally and physically healthy.”
In fact, teens who eat fewer than three meals a week with family are “twice as likely to use alcohol and tobacco and one and a half times more likely to use marijuana” than their peers who eat five to seven times a week with people who care about them, according to a study done by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.
Obviously, there is nothing magical in the food (though I’m open to secret recipes). But when adults who care about kids talk and listen to them, teaching how to engage and process a complicated world, you can’t be surprised that better choices are made.
A hyper-accelerated “Mad Men” world bombards us today with entertainments neatly packing all conflicts into soundbites of resolution, interspersed with messages in 30-second clips, now reduced to 6-second clips on Vine or 140 characters in a tweet, or a flicker of a Snapchat image.
We’ve traded substance for form. We’ve traded the acknowledgement of real complexities for caricatures of communication.
And we make ourselves vulnerable to deception, because without the kind of eye-to-eye conversation that offers something deeper, with all the nuance of non-verbal messages, we lose so much in the translation.
What will future social scientists make of a society in which one of the top movies of the year, “HER,” tells the story of a man in love with the voice on his computer, or of the animated hit movie “WALL-E,” where the people are so plugged into technology they don’t see the world around them, but robots find true love?
Mark Twain may have said it best, observing, “Let us make a special effort to stop communicating with each other, so we can have some conversation.”