Smartphones and Teens: Consumed by Connectedness


Japanese teenagers have grown ever more reliant on smartphones to cement the social relationships so important to their sense of self-worth. But for some, constant connectedness can morph into an onerous burden or even a consuming addiction. Ishikawa Yūki draws on her journalistic experience to shed light on such hazards.

It seems like only yesterday that the Japanese cell phone market was in the grip of the so-called Galapagos syndrome, dominated by advanced flip phones minutely adapted for use in Japan but basically useless elsewhere. Such advanced features as “one seg” TV broadcasts and digital wallet functionality, along with emoji, customized incoming-message ringtones, and other bells and whistles, made these gara-kei (Galapagos mobile phones) so popular domestically that when Softbank Mobile launched sales of the Apple iPhone 3G in July 2008, many doubted the smartphone could penetrate the Japanese market.

Today, however, a smartphone is on its way to becoming a necessity for everyday life in Japan. For teenagers, smartphones are information and communication lifelines, without which they would feel bereft of entertainment and social interaction.

Staying Socially Connected

A February 2016 survey of mobile phone usage by minors, conducted by the information security firm Digital Arts, found that 70.6% of Japanese aged 10–18 owned smartphones. The amount of time spent on the devices each day varied by age. Among the elementary school students (grades four through six), average daily usage was 1.8 hours for boys and 1.7 hours for girls. At the junior high school level, it was 2.0 for boys and 2.1 for girls. Among high school students, boys spent 4.8 hours on their devices, while girls were on their smartphones a full 5.9 hours a day. Almost 4% of high school girls (about one in 25) reported using their smartphones 15 hours a day or more.

What exactly are they doing all that time?

Interviews with preteens and teens clearly reveal that, for them, smartphone use is less a means of accessing information or entertainment individually than a social activity that keeps them connected with other individuals or larger groups.

Social networks, or social media, are the preferred vehicles for staying connected. A 2015 survey by the government’s Institute for Information and Communications Policy on usage of information and communications media found that 77% of Japanese teenagers used Line, an instant-messaging application developed for the Japanese market, while 63.3% used Twitter. The figures for Facebook and Instagram were substantially lower, at 23% and 24.5%, respectively. Line’s popularity extends from elementary- to high-school students, thanks to its inter-operability and flexibility as a tool for social networking. With Line, one can chat and share media with multiple users in various groups, including those of one's own creation. One can also choose from a vast array of “virtual stickers” to express emotions and otherwise enhance one's messages. The ability to form and join groups among old friends and new acquaintances is a big part of the reason most youngsters agree that “Line is fun.”

Mounting Insecurity

On the minus side, pressure to participate in Line is intense. According to many kids I have interviewed, anyone who does not use Line risks being shunned by schoolmates. At the same time, quite a few admit that they “find it tiring to keep up with online friends,” and some confess that they “want to quit but can’t.” How does the presumably enjoyable act of social networking turn into a burdensome chore or even a grim addiction?

The most obvious factor is the nature of the smartphone itself. Thanks to its portability, ease of use, and constant connectivity, it keeps one in touch with one’s schoolmates around the clock, so that social interaction continues after one goes home, on weekends, and during vacations, in practically any situation.

In addition, the use of smartphones extends the average child’s social circle far beyond the confines of school and family to embrace an ever-expanding network of online friends and acquaintances. The use of smartphones has given kids unprecedented freedom of choice as to the people with whom they associate. The problem is that everyone else has the same freedom. They can choose to initiate a relationship, or they can choose not to. They might also choose to cut off a relationship at any time; there is no telling when one might be “unfriended.” Kids are continually contacting one another just to seek reassurance: “We’re friends, right?”

Kids also feel pressure to keep up their social networking activity because they sense that their worth as an individual is directly tied to the number of online friends they have. In an environment where everyone is free to choose anyone else as a friend, a person with few friends is apt to be regarded as a reject, someone with whom no one wants to associate. Anxious to avoid being branded an outcast or a loser, kids feel the need to promote themselves as cute, cool, funny, a good student, a good athlete, a nice kid, a person with money, and so forth, projecting an image that conforms to others’ expectations, to ensure that lots of people will choose them as a friend.

Keys to Popularity

Being cute, cool, funny, and rich are the attributes most highly prized in mainstream adolescent culture. Such are the criteria by which teenagers rate the photos and videos that they share with one another on social media. The funniest comments and most visually appealing images are the ones that get shared most widely. Good looks, bubbly enthusiasm, and a fun personality are always at a premium among adolescents. Among girls in particular, the highest compliment is “cute,” or kawaii. They use the adjective constantly, not just in reference to facial features but also with regard to outfits, accessories, behavior, and so forth. “What a cute smartphone case!” “I shopped at a really cute store.” This constant exchange of observations about things kawaii helps preserve a sense of solidarity among peers by reaffirming shared perceptions and values. But meeting the community’s standards for cuteness requires considerable cash, since it involves buying fashionable clothes and frequenting fashionable spots.

Those who fall short in respect to such attributes or simply lack a flair for self-promotion are unlikely to achieve popularity at school and may even find themselves socially isolated. But such teens have compelling reasons of their own for spending time online. They are searching for an alternative community in which they can play an active role and be accepted on their own merits.

Social gaming provides a major outlet for those kids. But social gaming can also turn into a time-consuming and expensive addiction.

Pleasures and Perils of Social Gaming

The social games popular among Japanese teenagers are smartphone apps that make use of social networking functions to facilitate group play. These apps allow participating players to battle one another online or face the game’s challenges together. Players can also chat while keeping tabs on one another’s victories, defeats, scores, and standings.

A win boosts one’s standing and earns praise from fellow players. The world of social gaming is a transparent meritocracy where one is ranked according to skill, regardless of factors like physical appearance. In the world of the social game, a junior high school student with sufficient skill can command adults in battle or even become a venerated “master.” As a result, kids who lack confidence in face-to-face situations can gain self-esteem and self-affirmation through their social gaming connections.

But social games have their dark side as well. Competition among suppliers and demand among users have fueled rapid development of increasingly sophisticated and challenging games. The more difficult games often involve teams formed by experienced and skilled players. In an effort to boost team strength, some teams set ambitious targets for individual outcomes, whether measured in points or in progress toward the game’s goals.

Such quotas can make considerable demands on players’ resources. The choice is either to spend hours playing in order to progress to a particular stage, or to speed up the process via in-game purchases of tools and other items that enhance one’s character’s powers or otherwise accelerate one’s progress. As a result, social gamers often find themselves expending inordinate amounts of time and money trying to keep up. This is especially apt to be a problem among teenagers, who often lack judgment and social experience commensurate with their gaming skills. Convinced that the other team members are trusted comrades, youngsters may succumb to unreasonable demands from adult players without protest until their own lives are in a shambles.

Smartphones have changed kids’ lives in countless ways. With all their undeniable benefits, they have taken a surprising physical and emotional toll on many teenagers, who find themselves consumed by the very world in which they sought comfort or refuge. We as adults need to be aware of this risk. Let us not forget that it is adult society that profits materially by providing these children with smartphones, along with apps and games designed to hold them in thrall.

(Originally published in Japanese on February 13, 2017.)

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