Category Archives: children

Hotrod Sinners and Phone Beginners

Parents cringe when kids get their first smartphone. They have valid concerns about the hours kids will spend on the phone, as well as the accidental, or deliberate, exposure to the digital perils of cyber-bullying, cyber-porn, and more.  

Yet these smartphones also bring parents a peace of mind that an older generation never experienced.  Although there are still far too many vehicle accidents, young people are getting their driver’s licenses later and waiting longer to get behind the wheel. Fewer parents now spend restless evenings waiting up, praying that their kid and the car return safely from a nocturnal adventure.  


Smartphones have replaced cars as the status symbol for young people. Phones are changing the rulebook of how teens and parents work out growing pains. In this two-part blog we will highlight some of the differences, and center here on the more easily observed car/phone trade-offs.

The average age for acquiring a personal smartphone (in the US) is only ten, but there is a forceful movement to wait until eight, as in eighth grade . Smartphones have become a teen rite-of-passage. An earlier generation of Boomers, and to some extent Millennials, used their cars as the opportunity to establish independence and connections outside the immediate household. As John Zimmer, the  co-founder of Zimiride, and  president of Lyft observes

The independence once represented by the car has been replaced by cell phones and social networks, which are now at the forefront of people’s expression of freedom and access.


So, what are some of the differences between coming of age today, and coming of age when wheels ruled the road?


ENVIRONMENTAL: The environmental record is not so green for Baby Boomers and older Millennials. Their transportation preferences locked them into big-oil, and the affection for drive alone leaves behind an oversized carbon footprint.  With smartphones, today’s teens are far more eco-friendly, and cut their fossil-fuel travel trips  by doing both errands and entertainment online instead of taking  travel trips.  As the trend continues, there is an important sea-change just ahead: The convergence of the smartphone and the automobile is occurring with self-driving, autonomous vehicles. As you might imagine, polls find that teens and young people embrace the technology. Older people, the Boomers, are resistant to self-driving cars, and when you dig into the reasons, they say it threatens their freedom and independence .


FINANCIAL: Most rites of passage invoke some sacrifice or exchange of funds, and in this case, the younger generation wins again. Boomers were motivated to get a car and incurred the added cost of fuel, maintenance, and insurance. That often required the need to get a first or second job in addition to schooling.  David Murdock, who hails  from an older generation, quipped, “ We take better  care our cars than we take care of the maintenance of our bodies.”

Today’s teens still crave the ownership ritual, but it comes with less of a financial strain.  Twelve year olds to twenty year olds are registered for the family cellphone contract, and do not have to work as hard to afford the trendiest phone or heavy -duty data plan. They may even have extra change left to playfully try out stylish phone cases, headphones, and downloads.


CONFIDENTIAL: One of the pivotal differences between phones and cars cuts deeper. Boomers will recall that they did many private things in their own cars, or in the car they borrowed from parents. Cars became an indoor vehicle literally for the private consumption of alcohol or other illicit substances. Backseats were also legendary on date-night as the go-to place and, for many different reasons, teen pregnancies soared in comparison to the rates today.  When all stationary activities were exhausted, there were also trips! The Boomers, as teens, could visit with friends or travel to a site that their elders had specifically forbidden.

Today’s teens may be starting earlier, but there is a similar penchant to forge trails that are private and beyond the prying eyes of adults. Snapchat and messaging sites often provide a ‘teen-preferred’ space, by virtue of being edgy, and/or tricky to navigate. The back seat of the car may have been supplanted by the camera on the phone,  i.e. teens  sending, receiving, and forwarding sexually explicit message and images. There is a subtle similarity: Like young drivers who do not pay full attention to the road, teenagers on their phone may not be thinking about the risks and repercussions when they are deep into sexting. I Curiously, the demographics are different today:  women in relationships are more likely to sext than men, and that may explain why an older age group, 18 the 24 years olds, are the largest users.

 DIGITAL LITERACY: No matter what teens once did in cars there is one blockbuster difference. We used to expect parents, backed by strict hours of classroom time and in-vehicle instruction, to make young people driver-ready.  In an earlier blog we suggested the idea of a provisional license for smartphone users  and on our Facebook page, SmartphoneZen, we noted  the application of Yondr bags so that students were less distracted in the classroom.

Teens know how to use a smartphone and they are usually more proficient at it than their parents. But, they often lack the knowledge to use it mindfully and with purpose. These are skills that need to be taught. Since the nineteen seventies there has been a small movement to teach media studies in the school curriculum. However, it has never been widely adopted. Incongruously, most middle schools and high schools did make room in the academic curriculum  for classes on sexual health and body awareness.

Here stands a new opportunity: teens going online today  encounter a lot of information about sexual health and awareness, including cyber porn. That information is in full sight. For example,  The New York Times cites an older study (2008) that 93 percent of male college students and 62 percent of female students encountered online porn before they were 18.

So, if the smartphone is the new vehicle, and the classroom is the new setting, this might be the opportune moment to pair the two. Parents and educators  take note:  We  need a curriculum that is part of a larger umbrella where kids learn to use their phones in ways that are mindful and responsible. We need to help kids mature alongside their digital freedom and independence.



Provisional Phones/Provisional Drivers

The Provisional Phone And the Provisional Driver…

Are we needing to reinvent the phone for young people?

It used to be a teenage rite of passage in the U.S.:  At ‘Sweet Sixteen’ you were considered mature and could qualify to take a driving exam. Today, that rite comes smaller and younger. Children, well under the age of 16, have been indoctrinated into the whirl of smartphones, the friends and family of telecom.

According to a heavily reported news story in 2016, the average age (in the U.S.)  for having a smartphone today is 10 years.   That numerical average means that many of the users are actually younger!  Another statistic from the American Academy of Pediatrics and Common Sense Media, cites that 75 percent of low-income children have their own mobile device by the age of four.

Still, despite 100 years that separate their invention, smartphones and automobiles are joined at the hip. They bring similar rewards for young people.  With either technology, teens hang out with friends and meet new people, distance themselves from parental controls, and explore the world at large. However, there are also tragic parallels between the phone and driving a car. Teen drivers, ages 16 to 19 are nearly three time more likely than drivers aged 20 and older to be in a fatal crash and in 2015 there were more than 2,300 deaths. Meanwhile smartphones and social media use appear to correlate with an increase in mental illness, depression, and suicides.  A recent, large panel study with Gallup data compared offline and online social interactions. The researchers observed a statistically significant relationship between a self-reported decline in mental health and a heavier reliance on Facebook’s social interchange.

While no one is proposing that teens need a DMV (a motor vehicle office) to certify them as smartphone users, “provisional phones” could become a new heuristic. Since the beginning of automobiles there have been age restrictions. From the start drivers were required to be tested, and by 1909 one state, Pennsylvania, established an age restriction of age 18. Connecticut became the first state to lower that to age 16.

Today, smartphones seem to know no age restrictions, probably because children do not literally crash and burn. The impact is subtle. Yet recently, Silicon Valley executives, those who design hardware and software, have rallied for stricter technology use and even regulation.

Meanwhile, there is no scientific knowledge, just speculation, of the appropriate age at which children should have phones. There is an undercurrent (no pun intended) of fear about the health impacts of electromagnetic waves on young, developing brains. Meanwhile, ‘lucky thirteen’ seems to be popping-up as the new ‘sweet-sixteen’.  A Colorado doctor had proposed a ballot initiative to ban the sale of smartphones to kids under thirteen.  A large movement now afoot, in 48 states, is called wait until 8th (when children are approximately 14 years old).

The “right age” is clearly a dilemma for parents. Modern parents feel more secure if their children can be in contact, and they justify mobile phones because there are no longer land-lines. They also recognize that a child without a phone misses out socializing with friends and learning modern tools. Everyone knows that the ability and knowledge to handle electronic tools begins before age 13.

Looking for more posts on smartphones and mobility? Check out and @dearsmartphone on Instagram.

The Multigenerational Garage


Multigenerational households are growing in number and that’s a noteworthy trend for an aging population. But, the multifamily garage may be the source for the most vital trend. Today, about 20% of seniors live in a multigen household and their travel patterns do not fit the norm. A travel behavior specialist uncovered an unusual pattern.

But, first, what is leading different generations to live under one household?

On the surface, generations living side-by-side are “made-for-TV”,  like the fictional Ewings of Dallas who lived under one roof on the their expansive Southfork ranch. A recent WSJ story reinforces the growing demand from the well-to-do. They  are remodeling their “Next Gen“ homes with dual kitchens and side-by-side amenities.


But the reality that drives most multigenerational housing is less glamorous.  The rate of household formation among those 18 to 24 and 25-34 has been declining for some time- probably, say researchers at  Pew Social Trends, due to lower paying jobs or the lack of jobs. Meanwhile, the marriage rate in the U.S. has declined steadily, and single people are more likely to “stay at home.” A third factor driving the multigenerational household is immigration- modern immigrants are more inclined to live under one roof.

The number of multifamily homes is growing. In 2008, about 16% of the U.S. population lived in a family household that contained at least two adult generation or a grandparent and at least one other generation (Pew). By 2012, the rate was 18%, and Pew notes that it continues to rise, even as the economy recovers.

The multigenerational household may be a good trend for aging Baby Boomers, but for the current cohort of elders, the signals are mixed. Most analysts have been looking upstairs, and writing about the economic and cultural factors that bring these families together.  But the most interesting story may be in the garage.


Do multifamily households tend to share transportation and does it become easier for the oldest member of the household (seniors) to keep their mobility?

According to travel specialist Nancy McGuckin  transportation in the multigenerational household is quite distinct from other household travel patterns.  She analyzed data from the 2009 National Household Travel Survey- approximately 8% of the sampled households qualified.

A key finding is that compared to all people 65 and older, the elderly parent in a multi-generational household is more likely to have a medical condition that makes it difficult to travel and is unlikely to be a driver. Although over one in five (21%) aged 65 and older do not drive, that rate is three times higher for elderly parents living with their adult children.  In the multigenerational household, 64% do not drive.

The reason these older people do not drive seems to be health related. In the multi-generational household,  51.5% report a travel disability, a medical condition that makes it difficult to travel outside the home. That number is nearly double the 26.7% percentage in the general population.


McGuckin’s transportation study points us to an interesting,  but hidden, link between health and home. If the elderly parent owns the multi-generational home, i.e. has title to it, there may be further complications. It would disrupt the younger generation to sell, so these elders will be less able to afford assisted living, a nursing home or additional medical care. In more than one way, they lack for alternatives and are literally, more housebound.

Hence, it would be useful to map the geographical locations of these multigenerational household.   A post World War II suburban home, with a sprawling layout and ample square footage, is likely to be beyond the reach of public transit and the Dial-A-Van. But, it might appeal to a large family needing schools and access to highways (for jobs).  An earlier style of multigenerational housing, the triple decker, often found in New England mill towns, might be closer to a bus stop and walking distance to a hospital.


Age and Autonomous Cars


The autonomous car may be diffusing itself into the hearts and minds of Baby Boomers, even before it makes its first, mass-market debut.

In a poll done by Pew Research in 2014,


there was no age-divide when respondents were asked about their willingness to ride in an autonomous car. Fifty-two (52) percent of those 18-29 agreed, 50 percent of those ages 30-49, 48 percent of those ages 50 to 64, and 45 percent of those age 65 and older. The associate director of research, Aaron Smith at Pew commented, “We didn’t highlight the age findings because there weren’t any real generational differences to speak of.”


This is a very unusual finding. Traditionally “diffusion of innovation” studies find that younger age people are more likely to be early adopters. The literature lists myriad reasons but it is generally held that younger people are more exposed to more messages and information,  find it easier to be at “risk” with new innovations, and  enjoy “bragging rights” from being first (a vital dimension for social media).

Cell phones, GPS navigation, and social media use are recent examples of innovations that  began with young people and then trickled up to older cohorts. Since  24% of the US population is 18 or younger, and another 36% are ages 18 to 44 (total <44= 60%)  a really big innovation needs to filter up to the other 40 percent.


The autonomous car might be the innovation that captures both ends of the age spectrum.  For younger users, it holds numerous advantages: It promises mobility for teens and young adults without the hassle and costs of getting a license and owning a car. People under 25 have difficulty renting cars because they do not have a driving record. Oft times they live at home, on campuses, or in urban areas where parking is limited and expensive. The autonomous car could remove these hassles for young people, and let them focus on their schooling, or jobs…and even getting to work or school if they do not own a car.

For older people at the other end of the age spectrum, the autonomous car may be the orange “life preserver” we provide to keep them healthy and actively engaged. In earlier blogs we have written about the need for seniors to keep healthy and connected. When they give up driving older people report feeling isolated and helpless, particularly if they are beyond the reach of public transportation and affordable taxi services. This is a problem of proportion, since nearly 70% of the Baby Boomers in the US have settled in far-flung suburbs served primarily, and sometimes exclusively, by personal household vehicles. The suburbs might have been a fine place to live when they were young and raising families, but they will be the first cohort to test “aging-in-place” when “place” is  car-dependent suburbia.


People notoriously underestimate the role of new technology…until it well, just happens. Take, for example, the transition from the corded phone, the one with a curlicue cord plugged in at the wall, to the cordless one. If you had surveyed 35 years ago, and asked people their opinion about a “phone you could take from room to room”…they would have looked puzzled. And next, they would ask why they needed one and they could possibly do with it.

It is unusual, and exciting, that people intuitively understand the need for a futuristic,  autonomous car. The explanation goes something like this: “Imagine a car that you could take from place to place even if you are not feeling too well today, not quite up to driving, or you are simply too old, or too young, to have a full driver’s license.”


What about the Kids?



What about the kids?…and why a map of Long Island?
Most urban planners and transportation analysts know  a lot about Levittown. One of  the reasons that it was so popular was that parents wanted a superior place to raise their children.  J. Llance Mallamo*, a Suffolk County Historian, writes that in the 1950’s and 1960’s there were numerous fantasy and youth related establishments there . “At one time Long Island boasted a seemingly never-ending host of childhood delights including Syosset’s Lollipop Farm, Frank Buck’s Zoo and Monkey Mountain, and Harveys…”.

What changed? Mallamo says demographics but could it really be The Houses of Boom? In the 1980s and 1990s  we built McMansions that turned child raising inside and inward.

*see Long Island Architecture, ed. Joann Krieg, 1991