Existential 6-5000

A video clip of an appearance by Louis C.K. on Conan O’Brian’s show has recently started making the rounds.  Louis explains why he doesn’t let his daughters have cell phones:

Needless to say, since I’m blogging about it, I have issues with this.

Not giving your kids cell phones is not going to cause them to “set a better example” for other kids.  It is going to make it more difficult for them to socialize with their peers, at least in this day and age.  It’s going to make it more difficult for you to communicate with them.  It also denies you the ability to track them, though I want to be clear here that you need to be frank and open with your children about how their possession of a cell phone lets you see where they are.  It will make your children feel “weird” and left out, and it will give the other kids a justification (warranted or not) to ostracize them.

Which brings us to the notion that “cell phones make kids mean”.  Really now.  The kids who made my formative years a living hell didn’t need cell phones to do it.  They hadn’t even been invented yet.  (Mobile phones existed but that wasn’t the same thing and needless to say, the vast majority of people hadn’t even seen one.)  Children have been mean to other children for millennia irrespective of the available technology.  Louis argues that a kid who is mean to another kid will see how the victim is hurt and relent, but in truth he’s just as likely to feel superior and powerful and press the attack.  Intimidation (I refuse to call it “bullying”, never mind “cyberbullying”; if you’re not being hit you’re not being bullied) carried out via texting or such denies both types of feedback.

The bulk of Louis’ argument, though, is the idea that cell phones somehow serve as a denial mechanism (in the pejorative sense) for dealing with existential angst.  As I’ve said recently I don’t suffer from existential angst, I rejoice in it, but that’s besides the point.  My point is twofold, the lesser of which being that it might be a tad excessive to expect teenagers to deal with the utter despair and loneliness of a meaningless life.  I mean, what with the fact that adults have written volumes and volumes of philosophy about it, not to mention songs, stories, poems, etc. for hundreds of years.  This pales in comparison to the greater point, though, which is that teenagers aren’t even THINKING about this stuff.  They’re trying to pass their courses and have friends and fit in and maybe go on dates and stuff.  One acne outbreak is of infinitely greater concern to them than every philosophical issue raised since the Upanishads put together.  This entire argument is farcical.  You’re talking to your kid about the meaninglessness of life, he’s thinking “what is he talking about I’ve got to pass this math test and I still need permission to go with the guys to the movies Friday and I want to ask Suzie to the dance next week but she’s so pretty and I’m such a dork….”  Existential angst isn’t even on your kids’ long-range scanners.  Their lives aren’t meaningless; they’re filled with an endless series of looming disasters each one of which could mean The End Of The World As We Know It, at least from their perspective.  The fact that you’re old enough to know they’ll eventually realize how insignificant all this crap was when they get older doesn’t change how important it is to them right now.

Does all this mean you should automatically hand your kid a cell phone?  Certainly not.  I hate to resort to examples using fictional characters but this one fits well so I’m going to use it: on a recent episode of TNT’s Major Crimes the main character, police captain Sharon Raydor, threatened to discipline her ward Rusty by taking away his cell phone and laptop.  Rusty complained “you can’t take my things away from me”, to which Sharon replied “they are not your things, they are my things, and you can only keep them while making mature decisions”.  This is the crux of the matter.  If you give your child a cell phone (or computer, much the same thing for our purposes), having fully discussed the instructions and implications of having and using one, do you believe he will make mature decisions regarding its use?  If the answer is “no” then clearly you should not give him one.  But at the same time you also have to accept that you have failed your child in this regard.  The instruments of modern communication and computing are essential tools of everyday life in modern society whether you like it or not and somewhere in your child’s teen years it is incumbent upon you to see to it that he acquires the ability to deal with them.  If he hasn’t then you need to think about how you’re going to redress that inadequacy.

Not go on television and pat yourself on the back for being “superior”.

Dennis Heffernan

No one of consequence.

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