In the photos, the suntanned girls are laughing. Their heads are askew, hair whipping around as if their happy motion can barely be captured by the camera’s eye. A cool blue swimming pool awaits in the background on this steamy Friday afternoon. Sunshine, palm trees — and a cute boy from middle school has invited them over. All the makings of a wicked awesome weekend.
I wish every tween-ager could spend a Friday afternoon that way.
I wish these kids had actually spent that Friday afternoon that way.
In some shots, my son appears with a sheepish smile. He’s grown handsome faster than he could have expected, and lately seems alternately entertained and baffled by it. In the final few shots that would appear in your Instagramfeed if you followed these kids, my youngest son, an impish second-grader, adorably photobombs the big kids with bug-eyed expressions and tries to drag them into the water.
He does not succeed.
That day at our pool, the four girls in question sat shoulder to shoulder on a bench five feet away from the water. My son had invited them over to swim, and they were here, in swimsuits, staring intently at their phones. Since arriving, they’d only taken a series of selfies — alone, in pairs, in a group, each time smiling and laughing as though someone had said something truly hilarious.
Only no one had said anything. It was so quiet, you could hear the pool filter whir to life and then, five minutes later, shut off again.
In their photos, they were depicting something that wasn’t happening. There was no pool party. There was only a “pool party” that they were staging for the consumption of other kids who see their social media feeds — or, perhaps, for themselves to look back on later and enjoy how attractive they had looked while looking like they were having a great time. Like kids in a commercial for some unnamed product, they were selling the idea of upscale, preteen life.
In between photos, their game faces returned. They assessed each photo for its posting value, then posted and continued shooting. It was like every magazine photo shoot I’ve ever worked on, down to the furrowed brows and brief “Do you really think we got the shot we need?” debates. And yet these were real kids on a real Friday afternoon, supposedly cutting loose.
They were staging memories, creating what they’d seen all their lives in mass media: snapshots of people, supposedly candidly captured, having fun. Only there was no great time. There was only them, packaging and selling the idea that they kicked off the weekend hanging out and swimming with the cute boy from their class. How different would it have been for them if they’d actually kicked off the weekend hanging out and swimming with the cute boy from their class?
All along, they never stopped watching and assessing how their marketing was coming across.
My son jumped in the pool a few times, inviting his friends to join him. He got nowhere, until at one point the girls approached the water’s edge. There was some giggling, some gesturing. Now, I thought, they might really start swimming. But rather than simply jumping in, they were asking my son to photograph three of the girls leaping into the water together. They planned the shot, executed a simultaneous leap with smiles and shrieks of laughter, and then immediately got out of the water.
Silence again. They clustered around one girl’s phone, clutching their towels and briefly discussing the shot. Did they need to do it again? No, they agreed. So someone posted it and tagged everyone else. They never got in the water again. By now they were checking back on the earlier photos, scanning to see how much Instagram love they’d gotten so far. Once they’d documented all they could think of, they briefly stood around in silence and then gathered their things and left.
In those final moments, I’d wanted badly to interfere, to stop them and point out that the fun their photos alluded to hadn’t actually happened yet.
It still could have. Jump in the water for real! Laugh about something that actually happened at school today! Talk about something. Go ahead: Complain about your parents or your teachers. Plot some brilliant way to get around the restrictions we put on you. Anything but simply staging shots that look like slickly produced advertisements for happy tween-ageness.
But I said nothing. I didn’t want to embarrass my son by sounding like a time-traveling envoy from the world before smartphones, pointing out what was missing.
I’m not claiming I wouldn’t have gotten caught up in using these same tools if I’d had them. If you’d put smartphones and Instagram in the hands of Gen-X kids, we might well have done the same thing. But I ache thinking about what we would have lost if we had. We learned to talk to each other on afternoons like this one could have been. We learned to flirt and to speak up, to talk about things that were troubling us and fascinating us and pissing us off, and to make sense of them.
When we were together — whether in school, or in a kid’s backyard, or in someone’s (yes, probably tacky) basement, we talked endlessly about our lives, the future, and anything else that crossed our minds. We were immersed in our worlds of homework and crushes and family drama and excitement over whatever was coming up that weekend.
Along the way our lengthy (and yes, probably melodramatic) conversations about the meaning of life helped us actually figure out what we thought the meaning of life might be.
I’m not saying our way was perfect, and memories of being young are sweetened by time. But there’s a qualitative difference between the adolescence I’m describing and this existence where kids live one step removed, playing to an unseen audience miles away and assessing how their curated depiction of their lives is being received. Does it feel as empty as it looks from the outside?
Grown-ups talk all the time about — and some make millions writing about — how to get back to “living in the moment” and really being present where we are. We’re forever skating on life’s surface, racing to the next responsibility, the next to-do item. So we schedule down time when we can. Maybe we give meditation a try, maybe make an extra effort not to multitask quite so often.
How much harder will it be for these kids to be in the moment as adults if they never learn how to do it in the first place?
I once cooked an entire, elaborate Thanksgiving dinner on a summer morning for a magazine photo shoot. Later that night, after the photographer and art director were gone, I served my kids the food for dinner. This is so bizarre, my son said at the time. There’s all these leftovers, but there was no Thanksgiving feast.
As I watched those young girls leave our apartment complex after not swimming in our pool, I had the same empty feeling.
After the girls were gone, my older son swam with his little brother for a little while. Another second-grade friend of his had arrived by then, and those little boys were actually using the pool as a pool. They thrashed around with a ball playing some manic mashup of tag and volleyball.
Then my older son got out of the pool to check his Instagram. He wanted to see what people thought of the pool party he’d sort of had. See what the girls had been up to since they’d left.
Or, at least, what they appeared to be up to.