Beat-up cellphones with cracked screens are point of pride for some young people

May 17, 2013

Brittany Lofton spots them all the time: teens and college students clutching their beat-up cellphones, with screens so cracked that spider-web-like patterns creep across the glass.

Sure, the screen’s razory shards make reading a text and posting Instagram photos super blurry, not to mention slightly painful.

But that’s part of the appeal.

Introducing the cracked cellphone screen, which raises the bar by lowering it. Think of it as the tech generation’s ripped jeans or unwashed hair. Unshaven faces. Low-riding jeans. People who love high-low decor and city streets. The Black Cat, or any dive bar with rotting picnic benches and watery beer.

The blanket-of-broken-glass look infuriates many parents who can pay as much as a couple hundred dollars to fix the screen or, if that’s not possible, up to $600 for a replacement phone.


Damaged cellphones that some see as the high-tech equivalent of ripped jeans. (Staff Photo/The Washington Post)

Meanwhile, some young people say a cracked screen gives you a sort of street cred, like you’ve been through some real-life stuff, even if it happened on the mean streets of Bethesda. It’s tough, subversive and just kinda cool.

It’s that age-old teenage narrative: the desire to define your identity. In this generation, the awkward tumble toward independence is personified in one slim device, which also happens to hold a teen’s entire social life.

“It’s this total trend, because it’s not like we’re rushing out to get them fixed,” smirks Lofton, 23, who works at the Barnes & Noble in Bethesda, a favorite hangout. “A cracked screen is, like, this really cool scar.”

“Plus, it’s a great conversation starter,” chimed in her friend and co-worker Samantha Lasky, also 23.

As in?

“How did you crack your cellphone?”

“I dropped it in my cat’s water bowl.”

If it all sounds like an Onion cartoon, well, it is. (Actually it’s an Onion video, this being 2013.)

“The iPhone 5C, the best new iPhone since you broke your last iPhone. It’s the phone you love, just broken,” says the spoof, which includes a British-accented female news anchor reporting that Apple has introduced the first iPhone “specifically for college-aged girls which comes with an already broken screen.” (A glitter-nail-polished hand holds an iPhone with a cracked screen.)

Lofton and Lasky, both Howard University graduates in psychology, said they see cracked screens as a “form of self-expression.”

They whip out their phones and dial up Web sites selling the latest “cracked screen wallpaper” and “pre-cracked screen savers.”

These are not as cool as a real cracked phone, they say. But they are funny and are used to punk parents.

“I mean, they’re going to crack it at some point, so why not just get it out of the way?” one slogan reads.

A variation of the cracked front screen is the busted-up back cover. A broken back panel can be tricked out by coloring in the cracks. Done with care, it’s made to look like a rainbow of stained glass.

“You just a need a red and blue Sharpie and maybe a yellow highlighter. Then, you color in the glass, and it looks really cool,” said Julian Shadding, 17, from Hyattsville, who dropped his iPhone while walking his dog.

“But enjoy that cut on your finger,” said Trevor Lyman, 27, co-owner of CrackedMacScreen Repair Team in Northwest Washington, which offers rates that are significantly less than about $150 to $260 through Apple for such fixes.

He says that cracked cellphones have become popular partly because they are so expensive to repair.

The psychology goes something like this, he says: You break your phone. You can’t afford to fix it. You are kinda embarrassed that you did it.

“So maybe, you don’t want to ask your parents for money,” Lyman said. “So, you tell yourself, I’m gonna be badass with a broken phone.”

There is a class dimension to all of this, said Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University and author of “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.”

“If you’re low-income and you’re surrounded by signs of deterioration, you don’t see a cracked-up phone as a sign of status,” he said.

But to really understand the phenomenon of the cracked smartphone screen, you have to realize how attached the younger generation is to cellphones, said Bauerlein, 54, a self-described grumpy old man.

“These phones are the embodiment of their social lives with the tremendous power to keep up with their friends. So, it’s really a tool of their independence,” Bauer­lein said. “They are the locked diary of this generation. ”

So, if the phone is dropped and broken? Are you broken?

The fragility of the phone means, you cracked it, Bauerlein says, but, look, it still works!

“So it survived,” Bauerlein said. “And that extends to you. You’re worldly wise. You have a kind of toughness. You’re a survivor.”

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