What Four High-School Kids Taught Me About the Future of Mobile

“E-mail doesn’t really exist in our generation,” said Caitlin Cheng, a junior at Milton Academy.

Oh, just you wait, I thought, as I listened to a panel of Boston-area high-school students talk about how they use mobile devices. We keep hearing that e-mail is going away—kids don’t use it except for school—yet whenever a new generation hits the workforce, they seem to get sucked into the never-ending inbox vortex.

For kids these days, the social-mobile deluge sounds just as bad, maybe worse. Will Pincince, a freshman at Milton Academy, said he checks Twitter, Snapchat, or Instagram on his phone every five minutes. And this is a young man who seems very focused and poised for his age.

Matthew Rice, 15, a freshman at Hingham High School, said he was initially skeptical of what Instagram was good for. That is, until the photo-sharing app “took over my life,” he said.

And don’t get them started on Candy Crush (really, please don’t).

The students spoke at Xconomy’s Mobile Madness 2014 business conference at Microsoft’s New England Research and Development center on Wednesday. Leading the discussion was David Chang, a local startup guru and COO of PayPal Media Network (pictured above with the students).

One observation: The kids never used the word “mobile,” as far as I remember. Indeed, a broader theme of the conference was that the term has become meaningless because it is now everywhere and applies to almost everything in the tech world.

Most of the students’ device habits were not surprising. They all had iPhones. They text their friends. They e-mail their teachers. They usually call their parents—while also sometimes blocking them on social media. (Who said privacy was dead?)

Apps they use the most: Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Pandora. None of the students revealed any lesser-known apps they use that could be the next big thing.

Yet two of them, Caitlin Cheng and Madison Calkins, were users of the international messaging service WhatsApp before most Americans had even heard of it—and long before its $19 billion acquisition by Facebook last month.

The panel also heightened the general sense that Facebook is slipping with the younger set. “Facebook is not really cool anymore,” said Calkins, 15, a sophomore at Hopkinton High School. (She’s the daughter of my Xconomy colleague Greg Calkins.) The consensus was that once your parents are on a social network, it’s time to move on to something else.

Calkins said she and her friends tend to keep up with school gossip on Twitter, rather than using it to follow celebrities or people they don’t know. “Facebook is dying because of Twitter,” Pincince added. That also struck me as interesting, because just a few years ago no high-school students I knew used Twitter.

Cheng, who is co-head of her school’s entrepreneurship club, pointed out that among her peers, social media has become more about a “popularity contest” than about staying in the loop with friends.

There was thoughtful discussion of maintaining a proper “ratio” of how many people follow you to how many you follow. Which led moderator David Chang, 43, to remark that he does the same thing.

As I told the crowd afterwards, hearing the younger generation talk about their world is always a mix of inspiring and deeply troubling. Mobile is no different. Mostly I just felt old.

The Author

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com.

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  • http://www.twitter.com/mattsf Matt Nagel

    Really great comments from these students.