You Know Who’s Really Addicted to Their Phones? The Olds.

Millennials, we’re assured by endless headlines, are the people most addicted to their devices. Addled by social networking, obsessed with taking selfies and hustling for likes, youngsters can’t put their damn phones down. Amirite?

Nope. That is wrong. The data suggests that the ones most hooked on their devices are those graying Gen Xers. Research by Nielsen, for example, found that Americans aged 35 to 49 used social media 40 minutes more each week than those aged 18 to 34. Gen Xers were also more likely than millennials to pull their phones out at the dinner table. (Baby boomers were even worse!) The middle-­aged spend more time than millennials on every type of device—phone, computer, tablet—and, while they don’t peek at their phones while driving more than young people, they do it more than they should.

So: Why can’t middle-­aged ­people put down their phones? Because the midpoint of life is when your need to communicate peaks. The middle-aged are the central node in their nuclear families, the hub through which all messaging travels. Sure, people under 30 may juggle endless Snaps and Instagram Stories with their friends. But the middle-aged are fielding texts and FaceTimes from their teenage kids (hitting them up with questions about school or relationships) as well as emails, phone calls, and more texts from their parents, whose health care they’re often organizing.

“It’s the nature of being middle-­aged—anyone can interrupt you with an unnecessary question,” says Catherine Steiner-Adair, a psychologist and author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. Example: She was recently on a painting retreat with a friend in his early fifties who couldn’t do much painting because he was fielding a flurry of insurance queries for his mother.

Worse, there’s work. Middle age is when many employees ascend to middle management—only to discover this requires them to be pecked to death 24/7 by emails from underlings, who beg permission, post queries, and distribute ass-­covering CC’d email chains the length of War and Peace. The middle-­aged are the flight-traffic controllers for corporations, and the work flows, Niagaran, through their inboxes. Research by Jennifer J. Deal, a senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership, found that workers in upper management, many of whom are older, spend on average 72 hours a week tied to work via umbilical email.

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Of course, not all hyperconnectivity is forced on the middle-aged. Some is purely social, which Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, the 53-year-old author of The Distraction Addiction, says is a good thing. “At our age, it gets harder and harder to simply do the everyday work of maintaining friendships and social ties.” And the olds are just as Pavlovian as anyone. They’ve turned
the obligation for connection into a voluntary, casino-fied habit, glancing at their phones for ritualistic diversions all day long. In her research, Steiner-­Adair regularly interviews elementary ­schoolkids. They complain a lot about parents who can’t be pried from their screens. “Parents,” she sighs, “are the worst.”

Real Wedding, Virtual Space •
The Pursuit of Youth •
The Digital Vision Problem •
Gamers Age Out •
Rebooting Reproduction •
Silicon Valley’s Brotox Boom •
The Next Steve Jobs •
Solving Health Issues at All Stages

Clive Thompson (@pomeranian99) is a columnist for WIRED.

This article appears in the April issue. Subscribe now.

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