13, right now: This is what it’s like to grow up in the age of likes, lols and longing

The Screen Age

13, right now

This is what it's like to grow up in the age of likes, lols and longing

Published on May 25, 2016

She slides into the car, and even before she buckles her seat belt, her phone is alight in her hands. A 13-year-old girl after a day of eighth grade.

She says hello. Her au pair asks, “Ready to go?”

She doesn’t respond, her thumb on Instagram. A Barbara Walters meme is on the screen. She scrolls, and another meme appears. Then another meme, and she closes the app. She opens BuzzFeed. There’s a story about Florida Gov. Rick Scott, which she scrolls past to get to a story about Janet Jackson, then “28 Things You’ll Understand If You’re Both British and American.” She closes it. She opens Instagram. She opens the NBA app. She shuts the screen off. She turns it back on. She opens Spotify. Opens Fitbit. She has 7,427 steps. Opens Instagram again. Opens Snapchat. She watches a sparkly rainbow flow from her friend’s mouth. She watches a YouTube star make pouty faces at the camera. She watches a tutorial on nail art. She feels the bump of the driveway and looks up. They’re home. Twelve minutes have passed.

Katherine Pommerening in the front seat of her family’s station wagon. Katherine was born in 2002, meaning she is a member of what’s being called Generation Z.

Katherine Pommerening’s iPhone is the place where all of her friends are always hanging out. So it’s the place where she is, too. She’s on it after it rings to wake her up in the mornings. She’s on it at school, when she can sneak it. She’s on it while her 8-year-old sister, Lila, is building crafts out of beads. She sets it down to play basketball, to skateboard, to watch PG-13 comedies and sometimes to eat dinner, but when she picks it back up, she might have 64 unread messages.

Now she’s on it in the living room of her big house in McLean, Va., while she explains what it’s like to be a 13-year-old today.

“Over 100 likes is good, for me. And comments. You just comment to make a joke or tag someone.”

The best thing is the little notification box, which means someone liked, tagged or followed her on Instagram. She has 604 followers. There are only 25 photos on her page because she deletes most of what she posts. The ones that don’t get enough likes, don’t have good enough lighting or don’t show the coolest moments in her life must be deleted.

“I decide the pictures that look good,” she says. “Ones with my friends, ones that are a really nice-looking picture.”

Somewhere, maybe at this very moment, neurologists are trying to figure out what all this screen time is doing to the still-forming brains of people Katherine’s age, members of what’s known as Generation Z. Educators are trying to teach them that not all answers are Googleable. Counselors are prying them out of Internet addictions. Parents are trying to catch up by friending their kids on Facebook. (P.S. Facebook is obsolete.) Sociologists, advertisers, stock market analysts – everyone wants to know what happens when the generation born glued to screens has to look up and interact with the world.

Katherine at her house, playing Xbox (top left), in the kitchen with her au pair Rachel and 8-year-old sister, Lila, (top right) and outside with her skateboard (bottom.) Katherine got her first phone in the fifth grade.

Right now, Katherine is still looking down.

“See this girl,” she says, “she gets so many likes on her pictures because she’s posted over nine pictures saying, ‘Like all my pictures for a tbh, comment when done.’ So everyone will like her pictures, and she’ll just give them a simple tbh.”

A tbh is a compliment. It stands for “to be heard” or “to be honest.”

Katherine tosses her long brown hair behind her shoulder and ignores her black lab, Lucy, who is barking to be let out.

“It kind of, almost, promotes you as a good person. If someone says, ‘tbh you’re nice and pretty,’ that kind of like, validates you in the comments. Then people can look at it and say ‘Oh, she’s nice and pretty.’”

“It kind of, almost, promotes you as a good person. If someone says, ‘tbh you’re nice and pretty,’ that kind of, like, validates you in the comments. Then people can look at it and say ‘Oh, she’s nice and pretty.’ ”

Tbh, Katherine is both nice and pretty. She has the cheeks of a middle schooler and the vocabulary of a high schooler. She has light brown eyes, which she only paints with makeup for dances, where there are boys from other schools. Her family is wealthier than most and has seen more sorrow. She is 5-foot-1 but will have a growth spurt soon, or so said her dad, Dave, in a very awkward talk he had with her about puberty even after she told him, “Please, don’t.” She is not sure how Converse shoes became cool, but it’s what happened, so she is almost always wearing them. Black leggings, too, except at her private school, where she has to wear uncomfortable dress pants.

School is where she thrives: She is beloved by her teachers, will soon star as young Simba in the eighth-grade performance of “The Lion King” musical, and gets straight A’s. Her school doesn’t offer a math course challenging enough for her, so she takes honors algebra online through Johns Hopkins University.

Now she’s on her own page, checking the comments beneath a photo of her friend Aisha, which she posted for Aisha’s birthday.

“Happy birthday posts are a pretty big deal,” she says. “It really shows who cares enough to put you on their page.”

Katherine is the point guard on her basketball team.

Katherine is the point guard on her basketball team.

Rachel, Katherine’s au pair, comes into the room and tells her it’s time to get ready for basketball practice. Katherine nods, scrolling a few more times, her thumb like a high-speed pendulum. She watches Vines — six-second video clips — of NCAA basketball games while climbing the stairs to her room, which is painted cobalt blue. Blue is her favorite color. She describes most of her favorite things using “we,” meaning they are approved by both she and her friends: Jennifer Lawrence, Gigi Hadid, Sprite, quesadillas from Chipotle filled only with cheese.

Her floor is a tangle of clothes, and her bed is a tangle of cords. One for her phone, one for an iPod, one for her school laptop, and one for the laptop that used to belong to her mom, Alicia.

A pink blanket with Alicia’s name on it lies across her comforter. A black and white photo of her mom on her wedding day sits on her desk. In a frame on her nightstand, handprint art they made together one Mother’s Day. Now, Katherine’s handprints are almost as big as her mom’s were.

The breast cancer appeared right after Katherine was born. It went away, then came back when Katherine was in third grade. In fifth grade, Alicia and Dave bought Katherine a cellphone, in case things took a turn. She was one of the first in her class to own one.

She signed up for Snapchat and Instagram, Twitter and VSCO. She stopped inviting friends to the house, because her mom was there, sick.

Last year, on a cloudy Thursday in March, Alicia died. Katherine won’t talk about it, today or any day. Not talking about it means she doesn’t need to think about it, except when the house is quiet and the thinking just seeps in. She doesn’t tell her friends how it feels. When she’s asked about it, she crumples. Her shoulders hunch, her eyes well, but no tears fall on her cheeks. Please, she would say if she were reading this, go back to talking about her phone.

A photo of Katherine and her mom, Alicia, that sits in the Pommerenings’ living room. Alicia died after a long battle with breast cancer in March 2015, when Katherine was in seventh grade.

Lila can’t find her tap shoes, Rachel is sick, the dogs are waiting for breakfast, and Katherine is heading straight to the garage.

“Don’t you think you should eat something?” her dad asks, rummaging through a cabinet. “A breakfast bar?”

Katherine’s arms are crossed with her pastel pink phone case in her hand.

“I feel like you should eat something before —”

“I’m fine,” she says.

Lila comes down the stairs, wearing shorts and complaining she’s cold.

“It’s 45 degrees out,” her dad tells her. “Do you think it’s a good idea to wear shorts today?”

He turns back to Katherine, but she’s already gone, somewhere in the house, doing something, he’s not sure what, on her phone.

Dave Pommerening wants to figure out how to get her to use it less. One month, she ate up 18 gigabytes of data. Most large plans max out at 10. He intervened and capped her at four GB.

“I don’t want to crimp it too much,” he says. “That’s something, from my perspective, I’m going to have to figure out, how to get my arms around that.”

When he was 13, he lived only two miles away. He didn’t have a cell phone, of course, and home phones were reserved for adults. When he wanted to talk to his friends, he rode his bike to their houses. His parents expected him to play outside all day and be back by dinnertime.

He says that a lot. He’s a 56-year-old corporate lawyer who doesn’t know how to upload photos to his Facebook page. When he was 13, he lived only two miles away. He didn’t have a cellphone, of course, and home phones were reserved for adults. When he wanted to talk to his friends, he rode his bike to their houses. His parents expected him to play outside all day and be back by dinnertime.

Some of Katherine’s very best friends have never been to her house, or she to theirs. To Dave, it seems like they rarely hang out, but he knows that to her, it seems like they’re together all the time. He tries to watch what she sends them — pictures of their family skiing, pictures of their cat Bo — but he’s not sure what her friends, or whomever she follows, is sending back.

He checks the phone bill to see who she’s called and how much she’s been texting, but she barely calls anyone and chats mostly through Snapchat, where her messages disappear. Another dad recommended that Dave use parental controls to stop Katherine from using her phone at night. He put that in place, but it seemed like as soon as he did, there was some reason he needed to switch it off.

He finds Katherine waiting in the car with two backpacks, one for her books and one for her laptop.

“What jacket are you going to wear?” he asks.

“I’m going to grab a sweater,” she says, as if she already had this plan before he asked. She heads back into the house, phone in hand, protecting it from prying eyes.

Even if her dad tried snooping around her apps, the true dramas of teenage girl life are not written in the comments.

Like how sometimes, Katherine’s friends will borrow her phone just to un-like all the Instagram photos of girls they don’t like. Katherine can’t go back to those girls’ pages and re-like the photos because that would be stalking, which is forbidden.

(Left) Dave and Katherine at a park near their house. (Right) Lila, 8, stands among her crafts. Dave grew up just two miles away from where he is raising his children, but technology has made their childhoods vastly different than his own.

Or how last week, at the middle school dance, her friends got the phone numbers of 10 boys, but then they had to delete five of them because they were seventh-graders. And before she could add the boys on Snapchat, she realized she had to change her username because it was her childhood nickname and that was totally embarrassing.

Then, because she changed her username, her Snapchat score reverted to zero. The app awards about one point for every snap you send and receive. It’s also totally embarrassing and stressful to have a low Snapchat score. So in one day, she sent enough snaps to earn 1,000 points.

Snapchat is where flirting happens. She doesn’t know anyone who has sent a naked picture to a boy, but she knows it happens with older girls, who know they have met the right guy.

Nothing her dad could find on her phone shows that for as good as Katherine is at math, basketball and singing, she wants to get better at her phone. To be one of the girls who knows what to post, how to caption it, when to like, what to comment.

She gets back in the car with a navy blue sweater. One small parenting win for Dave. He needs to figure out what Snapchat is about. And how to be a Washington lawyer and a single parent. And how to get them to eat breakfast and brush their hair and get to school on time.

He clicks on the car’s satellite radio and changes the channel from “60s on 6” to “Hits 1,” the station he thinks Katherine and Lila like. It’s playing Justin Bieber. He pulls out of the driveway and glances over at the passenger seat. Katherine is looking out the window, headphones on.

Katherine works on her homework. All of her eighth-grade classes have an online homepage where she can access notes and homework.

One afternoon, Katherine accidentally leaves her phone in her dad’s car. She shouldn’t need it while she does her homework, but she reaches for it, momentarily forgetting it’s not next to her on the U-shaped couch.

Her feet are kicked up onto a coffee table, and her mom’s old MacBook is on her stomach. She’s working on her capstone project, a 12-page essay and presentation on a topic of her choice. At the beginning of the year, she chose “Photoshop and the media,” an examination of how women are portrayed in magazines.

She types into Google, “How to change Chrome icon.” She finds what she needs in seconds. The icon becomes pink . She flips back to the essay and copies a line into the PowerPoint presentation she will give in front of her classmates.

Photoshop affects women of all ages ranging as young as six and even to women older than 40.

Her mom used to have People magazines around the house, but now there’s only junk mail with her name still on it.

Katherine doesn’t need magazines or billboards to see computer-perfect women. They’re right on her phone, all the time, in between photos of her normal-looking friends. There’s Aisha, there’s Kendall Jenner’s butt. There’s Olivia, there’s YouTube star Jenna Marbles in lingerie.

The whole world is at her fingertips and has been for years. This, Katherine offers as a theory one day, is why she doesn’t feel like she’s 13 years old at all. She’s probably, like, 16.

“I don’t feel like a child anymore” she says. “I’m not doing anything childish. At the end of sixth grade” — when all her friends got phones and downloaded Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter — “I just stopped doing everything I normally did. Playing games at recess, playing with toys, all of it, done.”

Her scooter sat in the garage, covered in dust. Her stuffed animals were passed down to Lila. The wooden playground in the back yard stood empty. She kept her skateboard with neon yellow wheels, because riding it is still cool to her friends.

“I don’t feel like a child anymore,” Katherine says. “I’m not doing anything childish. At the end of sixth grade” — when all her friends got phones and downloaded Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter — “I just stopped doing everything I normally did. Playing games at recess, playing with toys, all of it, done.”

Katherine switches from her essay to Instagram, which she opens in a new tab. There’s a photo of a girl who will go to Katherine’s high school climbing out of a pool. A photo of clouds above a parking lot. A poorly-lit selfie. She flips back to her essay. There’s a section about how unrealistic portrayals of women lead to teenage eating disorders.

If you aren’t thin, you aren’t attractive

Being thin is more important than being healthy

Thou shall not eat without feeling guilty

She found the words on a blog encouraging anorexia. Its pages were filled with photos of rail-thin girls and tips for how to stop yourself from eating. If she were to go looking for them, Katherine could find sites like this for bulimia, cutting, suicide – all the dangerous behaviors that are more prominent for teens who have been through trauma. She could scroll through them on her phone, looking no different than when she’s reading a BuzzFeed article.

In the past you have heard all of your teachers and parents talk about you. You are “so mature”, “intelligent”, “14 going on 45”, and you possess “so much potential”. Where has that gotten you, may I ask? Absolutely no where!

She copies and pastes some lines from the blog into her presentation. She has never dieted. But for some reason, she says, when she first found this blog, she just couldn’t seem to get it out of her head.

On the morning of her 14th birthday, Katherine wakes up to an alarm ringing on her phone. It’s 6:30 a.m. She rolls over and shuts it off in the dark.

Her grandparents, here to celebrate the end of her first year of teenagehood, are sleeping in the guest room down the hall. She can hear the dogs shuffling across the hardwood downstairs, waiting to be fed.

Propping herself up on her peace-sign-covered pillow, she opens Instagram. Later, Lila will give her a Starbucks gift card. Her dad will bring doughnuts to her class. Her grandparents will take her to the Melting Pot for dinner. But first, her friends will decide whether to post pictures of Katherine for her birthday. Whether they like her enough to put a picture of her on their page. Those pictures, if they come, will get likes and maybe tbhs.

They should be posted in the morning, any minute now. She scrolls past a friend posing in a bikini on the beach. Then a picture posted by Kendall Jenner. A selfie with coffee. A basketball Vine. A selfie with a girl’s tongue out. She scrolls, she waits. For that little notification box to appear.

The Screen Age

Who are these kids?

Inside the race to decipher today’s teens, who will transform society as we know it

'What's a tbh?'

Terms we had to explain to our editors when reporting on Generation Z


About the series

The kids of Generation Z have never known a world without smartphones and social media. The Washington Post examines what it means to grow up in an era where learning, flirting and hanging out all happens on screens.