What an Internet Outage Means for Teens

Lynn JataniaWe had an internet outage in our neighbourhood last week. We had no internet access for three whole days.

If you’re shuddering in horror, trust me, I get it. Our whole house depends on internet access. Without the internet, my husband and I couldn’t work. No one could watch TV, as we don’t have cable and instead have several different streaming services. Most of our favourite video games and social media sites were inaccessible. It was the dark ages, for sure.

We had other things to do, of course – board games, baking, reading, art projects, old fashioned video game systems and DVDs – so it’s not like we were just sitting around staring at each other. As a result, our teens took it surprisingly well. They amused themselves and there wasn’t too much whining, and our DVD library got dusted off and saw some action.

But the shutdown did highlight an interesting thing about teen culture for us: teens don’t text. And when you don’t text, a lack of internet access is a problem when it comes to getting in touch with friends.

All three of our kids use Instagram Direct Messaging, either one-on-one or in groups, as their communication platform of choice. In fact, we were very surprised to find out that our older teens, who have cell phones, don’t even know the “texting number” of their closest friends. Our daughter explained to us that that when you meet someone new and want to connect, it’s standard to ask for their Instagram handle, not their (lame) phone number.

So without internet access or a data plan, chatting with friends, arranging hangouts, or even organizing work carpools for our teenaged son turned out to be almost impossible, especially because our older two teens are absolute Scrooges with their data plans.

We pay for a basic monthly plan for our cell-phone kids that includes unlimited texting and a small number of talk minutes. But we don’t pay for data – we know how quickly that can be eaten up by teens watching videos on the school bus with abandon. Our two older teens can add a fixed amount of data, 1 GB at a time, by purchasing add-on chunks with their own money.

As a result, they are extremely stingy with their data. I’m pretty sure both of them are still working on the same 1 GB of data they were gifted by the service company as a thank you for signing up initially. Both of them leave their data turned off by default at all times.

That’s not usually a problem because wifi is everywhere. We have wifi at home, and they have wifi at school. The mall, fast food restaurants, and even their grandparents’ houses all have wifi access. Our two older kids are experts at finding and linking to wifi – anywhere we go, the first thing they do is scan for open networks and connect. They’re wifi savants.

So normally, using Instagram as their messenger of choice isn’t a problem at all. But during our outage, Instagram was gone, and they didn’t want to turn their data on for even a few minutes to check for messages. It took two full days for them to break down and turn their data on for five minutes, frantically message everyone, then turn it off again.

So what does this mean going forward? Well, I’m not sure they learned anything about gathering text numbers for their friends as a backup. They’re still married to Instagram and would consider it a social overstepping to try to text people directly. And I guess as long as we don’t have too many future outages, they’ll be happy to keep in touch that way.

On our side, we learned that those unlimited texting plans we pay for aren’t getting much use. And this also explains why they hardly ever respond to our direct texts – they don’t even have a notification sound turned on for texting. We’re much better off following them to the platform they prefer, and trying to get a hold of them through Instagram.

It’s good knowledge for when they’re off on their own. We’ll hopefully still hear from them from time to time – as long as their wifi is up.

How do your kids like to keep in touch with their friends? Would they still be able to get in touch without the internet?


Want to know what questions to ask your kids about their phones or social networks? Consult our workshop and video series, The Parent Network.

Wondering how to manage your kids' screen use? Check our tip sheet, Four Tips for Managing Your Kids' Screen Time.

Are your kids feeling stressed by screens? Give them our tip sheet on Dealing With Digital Stress.

Curious how your kids would deal with going screen-free? Our lesson The Disconnection Challenge explores a group of teens' experience when they went without screens of all kinds for a week.