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

10 Comments
  1. Frank Povah

    “I’m a longtime Internet user, began in 1987 before the Web existed…it’s merely a tool…For them it’s a seamless part of their lives” Very good point, Barry (remember the program – sorry, app – named Spider?). And as we all rush to “socially network” and twitter (from “twit”?) on our cell phones – if we have any reception where we live – we know less and less how other breathing, thinking, emotional humans really feel – all we learn are their opinions.

  2. Interesting trend, but then aren’t most to those who are curious about human behavior. I can remember a time when I could be fairly certain of being the only person at a place to possess a mobile phone. My business often required response time guarantees, and for additional fees, near instant access. Even in those days, I referred to it as my electronic shackle. I used to choose vacation spots, much easier in those days, that featured a total lack of signal so I’d not be disturbed. I could have turned it off, and usually did so, but my clients would often call anyway and leave a message. I think my term continues to be a good one. Since most shackles any of us wear are self-imposed, it makes sense within your context.

    While retired, I still have a phone; a rather fancy one with Internet access, provided by my dear girlfriend. However, it is almost exclusively used for Internet these days, with traffic/map service, email, and convenience for locating food & entertainment wherever we happen to be located. It is often run silently, and always whenever I am socializing with real human beings face to face.

    I keep up somewhat with technology and I expect that once they figure out how to tap into our naturally produced energy, people will leap for implants that display beneath the skin with a frenzy akin to to masses clambering for the latest portable gadget from Apple.

  3. I’m so sorry, but this trend is not nearly as onerous as you make it sound. Do you know why young people sleep with their cellphones?

    They use them for alarm clocks. It does away with the need for yet another power-eating appliance and no worries about power outages making you oversleep. And it’s not a fancy ap — even cheap cellphones have an alarm function.

    Another conspiracy theory explained.

    1. Yes, few people are fortunate enough to sleep until they wake on their own, fully refreshed and ready to go.

  4. Barry Hollander

    I agree, Joey, they do use it as an alarm clock, or so say my own UGA students. Then I ask if they also own an alarm clock. “Well, yeah.” But it’s interesting that this box is becoming their last-and-first (last thing seen, first thing seen). Plus it’s just fun to write about “sleeping” with a cell phone — such as, I’d sleep with my smartphone, but it turned me down.

  5. Not only “young” adults sleep with their cellphone… on the bedside table. That’s the best place for it. You always know where it is and as long as it is charged it will wake you up over and over and over again, depending on how you set the snooze function!

  6. At first I thought it absurd that people sleep with their cell phones, but when used as an alternative to an alarm clock, it does make sense. However, there is a trend toward being so attached to the phone that young people seldom even put them down. The last time I was with a group of young folks between late teens and mid-twenties at an event, they all had their phones in hand and were busy texting between brief actual visits with actual people at the event. That was a bit disturbing to this old codgeress – is there such a word for the feminine of codger?

    1. Frank Povah

      Well in Australia, Maryann, if one was impolite, one could use “old boiler” as the feminine form of old codger – but I ‘m just telling you that, so don’t shoot the messenger please.

      Alarm clocks? Why does everyone need an alarm clock?

      And it’s not just the youngsters who are welded to their phones. I was in a chiropractor’s waiting room yesterday when this 50 plus woman came in, sell phone attached to ear, carried on a conversation with the receptionist, filled out a form, then went and sat down to wait, all the while talking on the infernal machine.

      At the time I idly speculated whether she was there to be treated for ringing in the ears, sideways curvature of the neck, or shoulder and elbow problems caused by holding the arm permanently in an unnatural position.

      Have you ever noticed how once a plane lands everyone has to call someone? And how much is it costing us to have aircraft fitted out so you can use your laptop/sell phone/computer game while in flight?

      I’m surprised that ears haven’t begun to grow over the bloody things, permanently embedding them in the tissue.

  7. Steve Krodman

    Not only can you use a smartphone as an alarm clock, you can also use one to help you go to sleep. Mine has an app that provides soothing white noise – ocean waves, in gradations from “gentle ripple” to “tsunami” – that can be almost as effective as a dose of Coma-Quil.

    But I choose not to sleep with my phone. My alarm clock and white noise apps go unused. I prefer the gentle soughing of my wife’s breathing… and she has her phone on her nightstand, where it serves as an alarm for both of us.

  8. Terri Evans

    Barry, I trust you know the term, “digital natives,” which applies to the sleeping with their phones generation. As to the folks my age, I suggest that a smart phone knows — and lights the way to the “ladies room” at 2am.

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