If you saw this photo, how would you react? Would you jump to the usual “get off my lawn” conclusion—that kids these days don’t appreciate fine art, and would rather piddle around on their phones instead? Would you worry that “screenism” is taking over our youth? The photo went viral, provoking much of that sort of indignation all over social media and blogs. Just right-click the image and choose the “search Google for this image” option and see what kind of results you get. Or perhaps you remember seeing it when it originally came around.

But if you made those same assumptions, you’d be wrong—at least in this particular case. On Medium, José Picardo explains the context. A few minutes earlier, the kids had listened attentively to a lecture on the painting by an art expert. They had then been directed to use the Rijksmuseum’s iPhone app to complete a homework assignment on the painting—which they were now doing.

Picardo cites a similar example of coming into a classroom at school and finding three girls sitting on the floor using iPads. Two turned out to be reading for pleasure, and the third was working on her English homework. He points out that, had they been seen giving the same level of concentration to paper books, it wouldn’t even have been considered noteworthy—but to many onlookers, the use of new technology can make it seem inherently suspicious.

Of the photo in question, Picardo says:

I wonder whether the photo would have caused so much indignation and disapproval if it had depicted students ‘ignoring’ the masterpiece while reading a paper leaflet or museum brochure instead. Though I suspect not. It would appear that, once again, reports heralding the death of civilisation at the execrable hands of technology might have been greatly exaggerated.

This, then, is the other side of the coin from the much-lauded e-book fact that no one can tell that you’re reading a trashy romance novel. Because no one can tell that you’re not surfing the web, or chatting with friends, or hanging on social media instead, either. And it seems there’s something about the combination of youth and technology that makes many people inclined to jump to conclusions.

We want kids to read more—but if we come across them engrossed in their smartphones, are we going to assume they are reading? Or doing other constructive work? This might be an issue we’ll need to address as digital technology becomes increasingly prevalent.

Or maybe we’ll just grow out of it as the technology becomes increasingly “normal.” Who knows?


  1. Hear, hear. All too often, some friend or relative will complain to me about “young people these days, always staring into their phones”, and I’ll be all, you do realize I read books on a mobile device, like, a lot? To which they’ll go, “yeah, but you’re different”.

    Uh-huh. Sure.

    Worse, the usual complaint is that said young people do nothing but browse Facebook, and for all my misgivings towards FB, I can’t blame them for, you know, keeping in touch with friends and relatives! Not to mention that if you take a peek while riding the subway, you’ll notice that people (of all ages!) actually use their phones for a variety of things: messaging, listening to music, playing games, and yes, sometimes browsing Facebook. But often enough, I see them simply reading a book — just like I do. And even if they weren’t, how is one activity inherently more worthwhile than the others?

    These complaints are pure snobbery. And while I’m old enough to have a thick hide, young people could easily get into their heads that they are doing something wrong, when they aren’t.

    Hopefully they’re smarter than that. Smarter than *us*.

  2. I worry less that they’re not looking more closely at Rembrant’s marvelous “Night Watch” on the wall behind them, and more that teens and (in my community) college students often sit, texting someone far away, rather than talking to the person sitting next to them. That’s crazy. It’s like preferring to look at pictures of food than to eat and delicious meal.

    In that picture I count ten teens, with only two engaged with one another and that only to look at the same screen. Sad!

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