According to a recent survey, 83 percent of young adults sleep with their cell phones.

And I thought my generation had all the best weird sex stuff.

When I first read this factoid, I didn’t believe it.  So I asked students in my UGA class:  “How many of you sleep with your cell phone?”  I expected maybe 25 percent would admit it.

The result?  Oh, about 83 percent said yes.

I suppose the other 17 percent can do a lot better than a “personal digital assistant” to get them through the night.

It was at home one night when I read this statistic.  Me being me, I took the low road.  I immediately wondered aloud, to my wife, if you’re sleeping with your cell phone, whose picture would you put on the screen.

“Stop,” my wife said.

“Okay, but I wonder what kind of special apps can you get for sleeping with your phone?” I started listing a few rather creative ones.

“Stop.”

“Fine.  But if you sleep with an iPhone, isn’t that…”

“Stop.”

So I did.

I get it.  By “sleep” the folks who did the survey meant — curiously — sleep.  As in slumber.  As in not what I first thought, honestly, when I read this odd and disturbing and a bit creepy statistic.  Being a cutting edge mass comm scholar who dares research the obvious, I moved quickly to validate the data.  In other words, I surveyed my two teenagers.  While Mary Ann Ferguson, my research methods professor, always warned against generalizing from an N of 1, I figured an N of 2 was at least twice as good.

“Do you sleep with your cell phone?” I asked my two kids.

It’s never too late to know whether they’re practicing safe telephony.

They stared at me like I was a taco short of a combination platter.  In other words, the way they normally look at me when I ask foolish questions like “how was school today?”.

But back to sleeping with a phone.  “No,” they both said.  Then they went back to looking at me like I’m missing a taco.

Of course they don’t — in part because they’re not quite in the 18 to 29 age group surveyed by the Pew Center, in part because they’re not fully inducted into the Borg who, if disconnected from the collective, sob like Glenn Beck.

But it tells us a lot about the millennials, that up-and-coming generation who live life by the soft glow of the small box.  If television is “the glass teat,” so aptly called by the brilliant Harlan Ellison, then we need a new name for cell phones and, most especially, smart phones.  “The Other Glass Teat” is already taken, again by Ellison (damn the man).  I’m open to suggestions.  So far, my best ideas revolve around a digital pacifier.

I originally came across the “Sleeping with the Cell” statistic in a fascinating column by Nancy Gibbs in the most recent issue of Time (Honey, I Shrunk the) magazine.  She draws heavily on this Pew study.  I suggest you read both — some of it may make you happy, some of it may make you drink, and some of it you simply won’t believe.  Two-thirds admit to texting while driving?  Really?  How come they’re still alive to be surveyed?

In her column, Gibbs calls young people “radically conventional.”  That’s a neat label.  Then she takes a hard left turn and calls them “unconventionally conventional.”  Not quite as neat a label, but both fit.  Consider these statistical tidbits from the Pew study:

  • Over half said one of the most important thing in their lives is being a good parent.
  • While nearly a third said that most important thing is having a successful marriage.
  • But they’re the “least overtly religious American generation in modern times.”  But they’re as spiritual as other generations.
  • And they’re on track to be “the most educated generation in American history.”
  • While through it all, it’s comforting they respect their elders.  “A majority say that the older generation is superior to the younger generation when it comes to moral values and work ethic.”

I left out a lot of political and media stuff, but it’s an interesting bag of consistent inconsistencies.  The most fascinating is the role of technology in their daily lives.

I’m a longtime Internet user, began in 1987 before the Web existed, but for me it’s merely a tool I turn on and I turn off.   For them it’s a seamless part of their lives.  They text, they talk, they share on social networks.

When they’re off, not tied into the collective, they’re probably asleep.

And even then I’m beginning to wonder.

So what’s it all mean?  Gibbs has a terrific hypothesis — we protected this generation so much, not even letting them go to the playground alone, that all these emerging socially-connecting media fill a need for the millennials.  “So should we be surprised that they learned to leverage technology to build community, tweeting and texting and friending while their elders were still dialing long distance?”

It’s a damn good argument.  I hate most cliches, but this perfect storm of a generation and emerging technology coming together, it will have significance in decades to come.  I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it’ll be fun to watch.

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Barry Hollander

Barry Hollander

Former hack at daily newspapers, now hack journalism professor at the University of Georgia, number cruncher and longtime Net user, caffeine addict, writer of weird fiction, and a semi-retired god in an online fantasy world where godhood suits him quite well, thank you very much. He also blogs at http://www.whatpeopleknow.com