If you're a millennial, or if you know one, then you've probably struggled at some point with the social etiquette of the cellphone. Highly scientific surveys show that millennials are horrible, antisocial subhumans who can't be bothered to tear themselves away from their screens.
But it also happens that their elders aren't much different, either.
Older generations may take some comfort in a new Pew Research Center study showing that 35 percent of younger Americans frequently use their phones "for no particular reason," simply to have something to do. And as many as 13 percent say they frequently use their mobile devices to avoid interacting with other people around them. Those figures are way higher among young people than for older folks, who, while still terrible, can rest easy knowing they're just slightly less terrible in this respect.
When it comes to the broader cultural question of cellphone etiquette, however, we're all on the same page — and we're all guilty. Eighty-eight percent of Americans — young, old and everyone in between — say it's inappropriate to use your phone at a family dinner, for example.
Oddly, people seem to think it's even less polite to use your phone during a meeting. As a despicable millennial myself, I confess I don't really get this one; meetings are about recalling and sharing information, so to the extent that your device usage facilitates this goal, it should be fine, right? Maybe I'm just more evil than average.
Whatever our attitudes about what should happen during social situations, it all goes out the window in real life. When Pew asked people to reflect on their most recent social gathering, 61 percent of Americans admitted to reading a text message or e-mail during the event. Just over half said they sent a message. Fifty-two percent 'fessed up to taking a call. A third said they placed a call, and the same number said they checked their phone for notifications.
We're all terrible at trying to ignore our phones when we're with other people. But maybe that's not such a bad thing.
Pew found that, by and large, people used their phones to contribute to the group somehow — by taking a photo of it, posting something that had happened in the group to Facebook or Twitter, retrieving information online that the group would find relevant, or connecting with "other people known to the group." Pew interprets these as pro-social behaviors. And while only 30 percent cited anti-social reasons for using their phones — such as losing interest in the conversation or activity, or connecting with people that the group didn't know — as many as 78 percent of people reported engaging in one of those pro-social activities during their last engagement.
So despite a never-ending anxiety about technology and what it's doing to us, we actually worry a lot less about it in practice. And that's common across generational groupings, not merely millennials.
In fact, there's one data point that suggests millennials are using technology to create whole new social situations. A whopping 49 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said they frequently use their phones in public to coordinate a meetup with other friends. Only 29 percent of middle-aged adults, and 22 percent of adults nearing retirement, say the same.
It's likely that these older cohorts work to establish plans with their friends before leaving the house -- and that the younger millennials are more fluid and spontaneous about when and where they make their plans to get together.