At the beginning of last year, a good friend’s daughter left home for university. She was excited, a little nervous, but looking forward to a new chapter in her life. She had a place in the halls of residence, and I was pleased for her, because it was in the halls at Otago University that I made lifelong friends.

I knew she would have to find her feet and meet other young people before she got into the swing of things. It’s the same with every new beginning in a new place. Tentative smiles, saying hello, making small talk, overcoming shyness, feeling vulnerable and awkward until, eventually and inevitably, beginning to forge relationships with like-minded people. That’s when the fun really begins.

When I went to university, it took just days before I began to enjoy myself. But a month after arriving, she was distraught, having made no connection with anyone. Everyone is in their rooms on their phones, she tearily told her parents.

The story ends happily: two months later she had a great new group of friends and they were having a ball, as it should be.

I thought about why it took so long for her to meet people. She’s bubbly, fun, gregarious. Perhaps a little shy, but a great conversationalist. But when my friend told me all was well, and that she was getting on just fine, I forgot all about it.

Then, this summer, the gorgeous, wonderful sun – absent from last year’s proceedings – brought plenty of barbecues and socialising with friends long into the warm evenings, and I observed something that got me thinking again.

I watched lots of social interactions between teens who either didn’t know each other, or hadn’t seen each other in a while. They were awkward, of course they were, as they have been since time immemorial. Teens aren’t great at small talk yet (but it must be noted that they’re much better than their parents at having fun once the business of small talk is out of the way).

Except the small talk never got started. It never stood a chance. That moment of awkwardness, before one of them finally plucked up the courage to ask the other a question (What have you been up to? How have your holidays been going? What music do you like?) was killed stone dead. By a phone. That precarious and delicate vulnerability, the embarrassed silence which both parties have had to endure through the generations, now has an escape hatch. It only takes one of them to pull out their phone, and it doesn’t matter which. It has the same effect on both of them. A wall comes down.

The realisation that the phone is a means by which to circumvent an awkward first interaction – a safety mechanism for a bashful teen – hit me like a hammer blow. It sounds silly, but it hadn’t occurred to me before (I’ve read plenty about the damaging effects of phone use on children, but nothing about how it stymies first interactions).

I wanted to scream: “No no no! You must endure this! It will pass. Everything will be fine! You’ll have fun together.” But they weren’t my children. It was none of my business.

I thought about it all summer. I realised that the first one to pull out their phone doesn’t mean to be rude. They’d probably put it straight back in their pocket again if the other asked them that question. But the other is thinking whatever they’re looking at on that phone is more important than me, so they don’t ask it. They don’t want to interrupt. They fall silent. They feel uncomfortable and rejected. They believe – wrongly – that they’re now alone in their vulnerability. They think about how they might feel less so. They realise that they might save face if they looked at important things on their own phone, so they pull it out, too.

The kids who pull out phones in this situation are not to blame. They’re not trying to look cool. They’re just normal kids, but in their pocket they possess a digital escape route from their own self-consciousness. Why wouldn’t they take it?

I thought again about my friend’s daughter at university. She got there in the end, but then again she’s 24/7 in the bubble of her her hall of residence. It was bound to happen eventually. The fact that phones delayed the natural process is a shame, but it’s not the end of the world.

The real tragedy is in these fleeting interactions. The moments where a lifelong friendship might be kindled, but instead is snuffed out by the simple act of pulling a phone out of a pocket. It seems so innocent, such a small thing, but it’s robbing our children of one of life’s great pleasures; interaction and connection. It’s a ridiculously high price to pay for the sake of avoiding feeling uncomfortable for a few minutes. And of course as with most things, there’s only one way to get good at small talk: practice.

One of my oldest buddies and his wife visited us this summer, and they brought along their two teenage boys. I saw them from the balcony, walking up our driveway, but they didn’t see me. I heard their mum tell them that if she saw either of them take out their phone during the evening they wouldn’t see it again for a long time. Something in the tone of her voice told me she meant it.

They came inside. Our boys and theirs silently eyed each other like gladiators in the Coliseum while the parents introduced them. Then we left them to it. As we walked away there was silence behind us. Then I heard one of them say to the other: “How have your holidays been?”


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