The New Telescreens

by TOM MCLAUGHLIN August 4, 2016

 My wife and I often take a seaside strolls evenings around Bug Light Park in South Portland, Maine. Others enjoy that too and most look to be in their twenties and thirties. I can't help noticing how many stare at their cell phones and one night I decided to count exactly how many. It was a lovely evening with a warm breeze. Planes were gently descending toward the Portland Jetport, ferries were coming and going, the salt air was sweet and Portland's lights twinkled across the harbor. About twenty young people were standing around the lighthouse in small groups, while others sat on benches facing the water. All were looking at their cell phones - every single one.

Moonset over Portland, Maine from Bug Light Park 2013

That must have diminished their appreciation of a special time and place. That night we saw no one in our sixties demographic, but when I do happen to see some they don't have a phone in their hand. Some may occasionally talk on one briefly, but I almost never see them just staring at the screen. There's definitely a generation gap in use of cell phones. While nearly everyone my age I know has one, they use them about as they would use a handkerchief - taking it out only when they need it.

Tanker from Bug Light Park 2012

I'd like to know exactly what those young people were doing with their phones. They weren't talking to anyone on them and they weren't talking to the others who were physically present either. It was as if they were in an airport where no one knew each other, but clearly those at the park did know each other even if they were not conversing. They weren't texting either: I saw no thumbs moving. They were just staring at screens. It would have been rude to go up and stare over their shoulders to see what so engrossed them, so I can't say what the were looking at.

Sunrise at Bug Light Park 2013

We were holding hands as we sauntered along the paved walkway next to the water. I run the same path mornings and have to keep an eye out for dog poop, but at night I'm not able to see it. Most dog people are good about cleaning up after their pets, but occasionally I've had to dodge a turd. I'm thankful that so far I have not felt that sickening squish underfoot during our evening stroll.

Flying kites at Bug Light Park

I shouldn't let other people's cell phone behavior trouble me but it does, and it has for a long time and I'm still not sure why. It bothered me the first time I noticed it while walking on a sidewalk in Boston years ago and I wrote about it. Today, phones do many more things and their use had greatly increased. That is changing us in some basic way because, after all, we are what we do every day. I'm not sure if the change is good or bad. We're communicating more, but in a more indirect way. People used to write letters, then letters morphed into emails. Now texts predominate. Volume of communication has increased, but quality has diminished.

Another sunset at Bug Light Park 2012

Sometimes I take my evening walk there alone. Smell of the sea brings with it memories of nighttime adventures with my teenaged friends in Newburyport and Gloucester, Massachusetts fifty years ago. We were part of a loosely-organized Sea Scout troop in the sixties and spent weekends sanding, painting, and varnishing pleasure boats while they were on dry dock in late winter and spring. Doing so, we earned the privilege of using those boats to cruise around Cape Cod Bay, Martha's Vineyard and Provincetown. Pleasant memories, those.

People pass by but I'm alone with my thoughts and it's nice, very nice, but it just wouldn't be the same if I were staring at a screen. What's the point of being in a special place like that if I'm looking at something else while there? Yet I see young couples walking along each staring at a screen. They're there, but they're not there. They're together, but they're not together. Something very basic has changed for them.

A poignant youtube video called "I forgot my phone" has gotten nearly 50 million views in three years. It depicts a 20-something feeing isolated as she goes through her day without her phone. All with whom she comes in contact are glued to theirs and she seems to have an epiphany, an insight into what her demographic has become. 

Orwell described Winston Smith's resentment of the ubiquitous telescreens in his novel, 1984. Unlike cell phones, those screens were fixed to a wall. Smith's fellow citizens stared at them and Big Brother could monitor them as they did. Our cell phones go around with us and are equipped with GPS, so our whereabouts can be known by anyone with the desire to track us. That's concerning, but not so much as what I see young people doing every day of their own free will.

UPDATE 8-3-16: Bar owner in England blocked cell phone signals in his establishment. The BBC reported: "He said he was tired of people coming in and not socialising with each other or with anyone else in the building. 'I've seen it progressively get worse and worse and I thought, "I want to stop this,"'Mr Tyler told BBC Sussex.'I want people to socialise with the people they are with, rather than the people they are not with.'" Contributing Editor Tom McLaughlin is a (now retired) history teacher and a regular weekly columnist for newspapers in Maine and New Hampshire. He writes about political and social issues, history, family, education and Radical Islam.  Email him at


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