SIOUX CITY -- Kage Knudsen got his first cell phone, at age 10. Today, he uses a more recent mobile device, a Moto, mostly for staying in touch with a half-dozen close friends.
"I text them a lot," said Knudsen, 16, of Sioux City.
He said that usage, plus how he Googles phrases to keep up on news, fits with fellow young people in Generation Z, the generational grouping just younger than millennials.
"They mainly use it more or less as a device, not as a phone to call people," Knudsen said.
Teens and young people in large numbers use mobile devices, something they routinely get in elementary grades, for hours per day to send text messages and look at Instagram photos of friends.
"Younger adults are at the vanguard of the constantly connected," finding that 39 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds "now go online almost constantly," a Pew Research Center summary said in March. By comparison, 26 percent of adults report being online “almost constantly.”
Some cultural observers worry young people regularly online may not engage in fully-formed communication and are actually isolating themselves. It is not uncommon to see young people sitting on a mall bench or in a school hallway staring at their devices, rather than talking with people next to them.
Sure, older people in past decades looked askance at new technologies, such as radio, television and video games. Today, there is considerable unease among people on how omnipresent digital technology may be changing the communication skills of the youngest Americans.
In an era when a mobile phone is often not used for calls, human behavior experts and academics cast warnings that the quality of face-to-face conversation is waning, especially among young people, who may not be polishing skills they will need in the adult work world. Somewhat counterintuitively, they also may becoming more lonely.
According to a paper in the December issue of the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, lessening Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat use can lower loneliness and depression.
University of Pennsylvania psychologist Melissa G. Hunt led the study, which surveyed 143 Penn students. Hunt said social media platforms give "the illusion of connectedness and not true connectedness."
“It is a little ironic that reducing your use of social media actually makes you feel less lonely,” Hunt said.
Morningside College Department of English/Modern Language Chairwoman Leslie Werden cited a Y-Pulse survey in 2017 that showed 64 percent of 13- to 34-year-olds said their smartphone is the one device they can’t live without. Werden said freshmen in college haven't experienced families sharing a phone at home, rather than having one mobile phone per person.
She said it isn't fair to wave a broad brush and say modern forms of communication are bad for young people and society as a whole. So long as educators help students use new technologies to develop their talents, such technologies can be useful, Werden said.
However, from her role as a parent, Werden wonders about the ubiquity of mobile devices in American culture. Werden said teens have challenges moving through the "tempestuous" years of adolescence. That's compounded by the quest to get a lot of "likes" on social media posts to connote popularity.
"It can create a solitary moment. Kids need to have social interactions to develop social skills," Werden said.
NO PHONE, NO SOCIAL LIFE
As a means to frame the history of technological change, Briar Cliff University sociology professor Wendy Brame challenges Introduction to Sociology students to go 24 hours without using a mobile device.
Most go without for a much shorter threshold, of a few hours, as "more than two hours sounds impossible to them," Brame said.
"A lot of them feel nervous or detached from their social life, if their phone is not on," she said.
Brame, who is in her 40s, said over her 14 years in academia, "I've seen an increasing inability or an unwillingness (by students) to communicate."
She has concerns about Generation Z, with their reliance on digital communications, being poor communicators, including in face-to-face interactions.
Brame said college students increasingly have let slang, which she said comes from the informality of texting, bleed into their speaking to professors and in written emails. Some students don't seem to know how to communicate well outside of texts, and one got mad when Brame didn't respond to an ill-conceived text.
"Many students seem to enter college lacking those formal communication skills," Brame said.
Brame said some young people entering the work force, whether they went to college or not, have no idea on the norms of workplace communications. Older employers and managers in particular, Brame said, won't readily accept young workers with rudimentary speaking skills, so she asserts a societal challenge is brewing.
GENERATION Z GOES TO COLLEGE
Werden said the Corey Seemiller book "Generation Z Goes to College" is an instructive look at how the generation uses phones. (Seemiller will speak at the Morningside campus on April 12.)
Seemiller writes that Generation Z, which includes people born from the mid-1990s to mid-2000s, stay connected primarily via Instagram or SnapChat. If they want to learn something such as how to cook a dessert, they go to YouTube to watch instructional videos.
"Their most preferred method of communication is texting. They strongly dislike email, and I've read that they don't like to talk on the phone," Werden said. Those young people also communicate technologically in messaging groups, via GroupMe of SnapChat.
Seemiller writes that Generation Z will talk face to face, but they want the time to be productive, so they set up the conversation ahead of time by another means.
"They want the in-person communication to be a good use of their time," Werden said.
A former teacher, Kara Packebush owns the Riddle Me That escape room in Arnolds Park, Iowa. Packebush insists on using no-tech riddles and logic puzzles as clues for people to get out of the room in the 60 minutes. She sees that as a needed mental challenge in a time when people have problem communicating directly without digital means.
Packebush said it is clear that mobile phones have made young people more isolated. She has noticed young people working in teams to get out of Riddle Me That rooms "don't know how to ask for help."
Her observation is that Generation Z is far more versed to write out messages to others than to speak directly to them. For Packebush, that is problematic for how these people will communicate as adults, saying it will lead to "vacant" conversations without substance to solve issues in their family or work lives.
Packebush, who is in her mid-30s, said she regularly has conversations with other adults who are concerned on how to raise their children in a culture with rampant mobile device usage.
"Technology has its place, but social media is a rough one, especially with teens," Packebush said. "We are headed to a very dangerous place with the amount of usage we are seeing."
Morningside College freshman Kaelyn Giefer, who is from Loveland, Colorado, got her first phone in sixth grade. She mainly uses her current mobile device, an iPhone7, for texting, and to keep up with social media, primarily in the form of Instagram and Twitter. The applications she most uses are for SnapChat and Instagram, although she's not one to spurn using it for calling.
"I am always texting my family members every day, and then I will call every couple days," Giefer said.
Knudsen said some people tell him he uses his mobile device too much, although he isn't so sure. Frequently, it is his father reminding of chores.
In the Pennsylvania study, students who cut their screen time kept to 10 minutes on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat each day, for a combined maximum of 30 minutes daily. The social media diets didn't have much of an influence on anxiety or self-acceptance, but after three weeks, students who limited their time on the apps scored better on the UCLA Loneliness Scale.
Notably, the study did not ask students to completely abstain from social media. The researchers explained this choice: "It is unrealistic to expect young people to forgo this information stream entirely."
Giefer said it is hard to imagine life without mobile devices, as it is all she has seen in her nearly two decades of life, but likes to think she isn't addicted to it.
"It would be different, since I grew up with it. But I think I could get used to (being without) it," Giefer said.