Smartphones Have Replaced Cars as Objects of Desire in the Eyes of Today’s Youth

Today’s children and teens do not care much for driving.

According to the University of Michigan, in 1983 more than 90% of 20–24 year olds had licenses, today the figure is just over 75%. The number of 16 year olds with licenses has split in half in the same period. No secular demographic trend can explain away this dramatic crash in interest in vehicles.

Other surveys have found that youths self report being ‘too busy’ to get a license or being unable to afford the operating costs as the most common demotivating factors. But car ownership has gotten cheaper, even relative to income, in years past; and lets get real, 16 year olds have time to get licensed if they want.

The only explanation is that the allure of car ownership has lost its luster. Not so long ago, access to mobility via a drivers license was a 16 year olds ticket to spend time with friends and romantic companions absent parental guidance. The DMV was a venue for the most transformative moment in an adolescent’s life; a key rite of passage in the ascension to adulthood; one impatiently yearned for by a universe of kids and teenagers.

Today, the glamor of that transformation has effectively been nullified by social media. Facebook, twitter, snapchat, and text have replaced the mall and the movie theater as venues of extracurricular bonding among kids and teenagers. And the smartphone has replaced the car as the aspirational object required to unlock the full splendors of youth. In the words of Technological Sociologist, Rudi Volti:

Preteens desire (phones) for the same reason they later desire an automobile: it provides them with a chance to connect with their friends wherever they are, at any time.

This auspicious observation was written in 2006, in reference to flip phones, long before it became clear that digital technology was not just replacing some functions of cars, but eroding the desire for mobility itself. In part, the disintegration car culture is attributable to the appeal of new social products.

Many conservative reactionaries frame the emerging generation of homebodies as a byproduct of helicopter parenting, participation trophying, or whatever symbol of social tolerance peaks their sanctimony. But it is not like car culture fostered wholesome childhood activities. As a recent Atlantic investigation noted:

More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party, today’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been. They’re markedly less likely to get into a car accident and, having less of a taste for alcohol than their predecessors, are less susceptible to drinking’s attendant ills.

This trade off, turning away from a dysfunctional and depraved world of hard drugs, liquor, and delinquency in favor of a hyperconnected digital youth, may have been a faustian bargain. The article, titled ‘Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?’, went on to chronicle emerging research exposing that smartphone addiction and excessive social media use inspire feelings of loneliness and depression.

We are, it seems, replacing one tragically destructive social vehicle with another.

The Smartphone differs from the car in that it is often given to children at a far younger age; sometimes as early as 12 years old. In many of my interviews, parents have said that e-mail and Facebook remain off limits to their iPhone wielding kids. Interestingly, many 12 year olds not yet initiated on social media are given access to ride sharing apps like Via and Uber for use in emergencies.

In other words, we are already starting to see a collision of the world of social and the world of mobile among today’s youth.

This insight leads me to wonder; in the near future, could social media be married to fleets of autonomous vehicles to get children interacting in a healthy way? Can we transcend a century of careless urban planning and universe of entrenched, soul sucking social media through ubiquitous mobility?

As a Graduate Student at the School of Visual Arts Products of Design program, it is exactly questions like these that have motivated me to focus my thesis on the social impacts of autonomous vehicles.