For the young, cracked cellphones speak volumes

Cracked cellphones have become the equivalent of ripped jeans for the tech generation.
Cracked cellphones have become the equivalent of ripped jeans for the tech generation. (Washington Post)
Posted: May 23, 2013

Brittany Lofton spots them all the time: teens and college students clutching their beat-up cellphones, with cracks spider-webbed across the screens.

Sure, the screen's razory shards make reading a text and posting Instagram photos blurry, not to mention possibly painful.

But that's part of the appeal.

Introducing the cracked cellphone screen, which raises the bar by lowering it. Think of it as the tech generation's ripped jeans or unwashed hair. Unshaven faces. Low-riding jeans. People who love high-low decor and city streets. Any dive bar with rotting picnic benches and watery beer.

The broken-glass look infuriates many parents who can pay a couple of hundred dollars to fix the screen or, if that's not possible, up to $600 for a replacement phone.

Meanwhile, some young people say a cracked screen bestows a sort of street cred, like you've been through some real-life stuff. It's tough, subversive, and just kinda cool.

It's that age-old teenage narrative: the desire to define your identity. In this generation, the awkward tumble toward independence is personified in one slim device, which also happens to hold a teen's entire social life.

"It's this total trend, because it's not like we're rushing out to get them fixed," smirks Lofton, 23, who works at the Barnes & Noble in Bethesda, Md., a favorite hangout. "A cracked screen is, like, this really cool scar."

"Plus, it's a great conversation starter," chimes in her friend and coworker, Samantha Lasky, also 23.

As in?

"How did you crack your cellphone?"

"I dropped it in my cat's water bowl."

Lofton and Lasky, both Howard University graduates in psychology, say they see cracked screens as a "form of self-expression."

They whip out their phones and dial up websites selling the latest "cracked screen wallpaper" and "pre-cracked screen savers."

These are not as cool as a real cracked phone, they say. But they are funny and are used to punk parents.

"I mean, they're going to crack it at some point, so why not just get it out of the way?" one slogan reads.

A variation of the cracked front screen is the busted-up back cover. A broken back panel can be tricked out by coloring in the cracks. Done with care, it's made to look like a rainbow of stained glass.

"You just a need a red and blue Sharpie and maybe a yellow highlighter. Then, you color in the glass, and it looks really cool," says Julian Shadding, 17, of Hyattsville, Md., who dropped his iPhone while walking his dog.

"But enjoy that cut on your finger," says Trevor Lyman, 27, co-owner of CrackedMacScreen Repair Team in northwest Washington, which offers rates that are significantly less than Apple's $150 to $260 for such fixes.

He says that cracked cellphones have become popular partly because they are so expensive to repair.

 But to really understand the phenomenon of the cracked screen, you have to realize how attached the younger generation is to cellphones, says Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University and author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.

"These phones are the embodiment of their social lives, with the tremendous power to keep up with their friends. So, it's really a tool of their independence," Bauerlein says. "They are the locked diary of this generation."

So, if the phone is dropped and broken? Are you broken?

The fragility of the phone means, you cracked it, Bauerlein says, but, look, it still works!

"So it survived," Bauerlein says. "And that extends to you. You're worldly-wise. You have a kind of toughness. You're a survivor."

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