2014 columns, Gaming & Technology

Dumbphones and smart kids

by Connor Tomas O'Brien , May 5, 2014Leave a comment

mobile phone


If you’re in your mid-twenties, it’s a statistical certainty that your first mobile was a slate grey Nokia 3310. You were twelve or thirteen, and over the course of weeks and weeks, you wore your parents down. Alongside your peers, you had developed a sophisticated rhetorical strategy in which the weaker parent was targeted and made to believe the phone would function solely as a security device, a wireless tether enabling a line of contact between progenitor and treasured offspring.

This was a lie, but not really, because, while the aim of acquiring a 3310 was to subvert parental control, the phone promised a kind of radical freedom it couldn’t really deliver. Your mobile plan was capped at 150 messages a month, which sounded like a lot, but actually worked out (duh) at only 5 texts a day, call time was so expensive that the family landline remained the only option for any conversations that weren’t strictly logistical, and the phone lacked a camera, wireless internet, or social networking services of any kind. Options for customisation were limited to changing out your battery cover or replacing your blocky, low-res monochrome screensaver with a cartoon palm tree or a knock-off detail from Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. Fundamentally, the 3310 was a Snake II device.

Looking back, all of the limitations of the 3310 actually seemed kind of the point. More than any other device, the Nokia 3310 was a gadget perfectly suited to early puberty. It was a gateway drug that eased us into harder stuff that wouldn’t actually exist for at least another half-decade. It was a device that made adolescents feel powerful by giving them a false impression of control and independence: theoretically, having your own phone meant you could talk to whoever you wanted, whenever you wanted – the reality, of course, was that your world was limited to the numbers of your dozen closest friends, and you invariably had so little credit that you could rarely even afford to contact them.

The 3310 was the first digital device many of us carried persistently on our person, but it did not feel like an extension of ourselves. Rather, the limitations – the tiny screen, the limited storage, the austere feature set – established the device firmly as other, an external object that the hormonal teenage user was able to act upon, but which never really acted back. The 3310 was really the definitive ‘dumbphone’, lacking any sense of subjectivity or agency (Google Now was just a practical joke back in 2000, Siri still a Kubrickian nightmare/wet dream), and there was certainly never any sense that your life existed ‘inside’ the 3310, because how could it? No existence was so tiny that you could reduce it to a small handful of 160-character messages.

I’m thinking about all this now as I consider the kinds of devices and apps I’d use if I were twelve or thirteen today. Would I have a smartphone? Would I be using Snapchat and Instagram and Facebook and Kik? As a twenty-five year-old, I find the complexities of digital self-documentation and sharing difficult enough… how would I cope if I had access to the devices and services I do now but were only just hitting puberty and attempting to self-define? With the advent of lower-cost (or hand-me-down) iPhones and commodified Android devices, children and teenagers are increasingly demanding access to exactly the same pieces of hardware and software we’re using as adults, and the mechanisms designed to prevent minors from using these pieces of technology are almost always trivial to sidestep. (As Anne Collier has suggested, if children find a social media service too safe, they will either find a workaround or move on to more permissive products).

It’s been established that our understanding of the relationship between children and technology is now filtered through a series of myths, and most of these myths seem to have their roots in the era of my own adolescence. The idea, for example, that parents should aggressively attempt to limit their child’s ‘screen time’, and to closely monitor their child’s online activity, seems based around the notion that children and teens are still using devices as passive and limited as the Nokia 3310, in a world in which our networks allow us to remain offline by default.

Around the turn of the century, it was possible – at least in theory – to readily prise children and teens from their 3310s and Gameboys, and to send them outside or replace their gadget of choice with a good book. In 2014, though, this digital/physical dichotomy has broken down almost completely – with the rise of motion tracking technologies, even physical play activities are increasingly taking place in a partially online in-between space, and it is difficult to draw clear limits around ‘screen time’ when activities that previously drew children away from their screens (books, cameras, pencils and paper, musical instruments) are now often experienced through multitouch tablet and mobile apps. My high school teacher’s advice that we should only spend thirty minutes a day online now sounds insane. In 2014, it’s nearly impossible to hide from the internet for even thirty seconds.

In many ways, the Nokia 3310 was the perfect gadget. Were I to have kids of my own, a part of me feels tempted to hand them my old 3310 (it still works) and only allow them to ever access the web through a dial-up modem. I suspect this is how many young parents feel, too: technology and sex are both seen leading to a loss of innocence, and the dominant parental style in our culture seems to be one of both sex-negativity and tech-negativity. Parents seem to be encouraged to fear how children and teens use technology, hoping for a return to a more wholesome, simpler past.

Perhaps, though, just as parents need to take a more nuanced look at how they teach their children about sex, we also need a new parental playbook in which technology use is re-conceptualised as a positive force in children’s lives, and not merely something that should be circumscribed and limited.

The more I think about it, I realise the way I’m looking back on the era of the Nokia 3310 mirrors, almost precisely, how a conservative parent in the late sixties might have looked back on the era immediately preceding the Sexual Revolution – wistfully, and without any recognition that the force that is perceived as threatening could actually be a force for great good.

Connor Tomas O’Brien is a web designer and writer, co-founder of ebookstore platform Tomely, and co-director of the Digital Writers’ Festival.

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