The Kids are Alright: The Internet is NOT Destroying a Generation

When I tell people what I do for a living, I get a mix of responses. Some people think that it’s great others share their thoughts or concerns. After all, everyone seems to have an opinion on education: how it runs (or they think it runs) and how they believe it should run. Also, everyone seems to have an opinion on “kids these days.” The opinions on both (education & kids) tend to lean heavily negative… or at least concerned. So much so that my friend Carl Hooker published an article “When did Millennial-Bashing Become a Sport?” Like Carl, as an educator, I find it necessary to defend this generation of young people. The reality is, these kids are alright. While new technologies and connectivity may be changing the way the world engages, it is not destroying this generation.

Kids These Days…

Whenever I hear this phrase come out of someone’s mouth, I have the same reaction that I did when I was 15 and Gen X was the whipping boy du jour. I have to resist the urge to roll my eyes and groan… All generations lament the one that comes next. As an ancient historian by training, I can tell you of the Egyptian Papyri from 1500 BCE that complained that “kids these days” don’t respect their elders or worship the gods. Let’s not forget that Sokrates was condemned and put to death for “corrupting the youth of Athens.” Even the Roman poet Horace wrote:

“Our sires’ age was worse than our grandsires’. We, their sons, are more
worthless than they; so in our turn we shall give the world a progeny yet more
corrupt.” Odes III

There are numerous examples of writers, authors, politicians, and scholars complaining that the youth of the day are self-involved, narcissistic, lazy, and corrupt. When I hear my friends or peers begin a complaint with “kids these days” I want to kindly suggest that they are now officially old and there is nothing left to do but get a rocking chair, sit on their porch, and yell at kids to get off their lawn! Of course, I jest. The reality is that as we age, we become nostalgic of our own youth and critique those coming up. Perhaps a realistic look back on our own follies, challenges, and quirks can give us a boost of humility.

But Technology is Different…

While engaging in one of these conversations, a friend of mine commented “Kids these days… they don’t even watch tv anymore!” I was a little taken aback. After all, we were the generation raised by the “idiot box.” Television was supposed to be dumbing down our generation at an alarming rate. Yet, we still produced functioning adults that today complaint about teenagers. Adults often argue (without any type of evidence other than perceived anecdotal experiences) that teenagers are eschewing social interaction for life behind a screen where they are engaging in harmful and morally defunct activities.

rebel

Rebel Without a Cause, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

However, new devices are not really any different than technologies of past when it came to fears of corrupting youth. For example, the introduction of “car culture” in the 1950’s and 1960’s spurred fears of juvenile delinquency, extra-marital sex, and other forms of laziness and depravity. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, scientists, politicians, and others were concerned that too much exposure to books might physically harm women and hinder their abilities to be effective wives and mothers. New technologies have often spurred fears of their negative impact on adults and (especially) adolescents.

But Technology is DANGEROUS (especially for girls), due to Predators & Crime!

Picture1As a woman in technology, I hear and see this a lot. Whenever I watch an “educational video” meant to warn students and parents about the dangers of the internet, the victim is often a young girl. Is it a wonder that young women steer away from technology fields in the middle school years? Stranger Danger is a fear often perpetuated when it comes to teens (especially girls) online. However, we live in a time that it has never been safer to be a child… especially in America. The reality is, crime has never been lower. However, our perception of crime has never been higher. Am I saying that children in this country or around the world are never abused? Of course not. Unfortunately, children are still the victims of crime, most often by a relative of a friend. However, our fear of the internet predator is so skewed from reality that it impacts what we think children do, or should do, online. Nothing contradicts this reality more than our relationship with ride sharing services.

Due to tools (remember that idiot box Gen Xers?) such as the 24 hour news cycle, we are inundated with stories of crime. The more horrific and random, the more common it will show up in our news feed. The mundane doesn’t sell ad space.

To-catch-A-Preditor

But the Internet is Different – Teens are Addicted to Social Media!

This is another refrain that I hear from adults. Teenagers are addicted to their devices. Addiction is a loaded term. If you have an addict in your life, then you know the power of this disease. Also, adults commonly put their own relationships and experiences onto
their children. In my experience as an educator, I have found that teenagers often have a healthier relationship with their devices than their parents. Be honest, how many of you have criticized your children/nieces/nephews or other adolescents for behavior you engage in? Do you check your phone at the dinner table or respond to texts while out with friends? What about while driving (which you should never… ever do!)?

teens on screens

Courtesy of at the Speed of Creativity in? 

I would argue that adolescents are not addicted to their devices so much as adolescents are driven to be social! When I was an adolescent, I literally spent hours on the phone… when it was connected to a cord to the wall. I would extend it to the pantry on the other side of the room so that I could close the door and talk in relative privacy. It drove my parents so nuts they got me and my brother our own lines! That led to some robust fights over phone squatters rights… We also spent hours and hours walking around the mall (without adults and well before cell phones) talking to one another or other teens that we met while out. Were we expounding on detente or our latest interpretation of Tolstoy? Perhaps going over our homework? Of course not! We were teenagers. We talked about boys we liked, the latest episode of 90210, or gossiped about other kids in school. That is what adolescents do. This is how adolescents learn valuable social skills that they build on as adults.

What is different in this technological age is that, because of our perceived concept of crime and dangerous for adolescents, they have little to no unstructured and unsupervised social time. One of my favorite books in the last few years has been danah boyd’s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked TeensIf you have not read danah’s work, you definitely should. She delves into the relationship that teenagers have with their devices and one another, arguing that because we as a society have removed their physical social spaces (when was the last time you saw children biking or playing at the park unsupervised), they have delved into Social Media and technology to extend their social circles and engage with friends in an unstructured way, outside of adult’s prying eyes. In fact, this level of helicopter parenting has led to a movement: free-range parenting. If you read their website, you will find that it advocates what many of us viewed simply as “being a kid.”

But I’ve Seen Stories of Kids Being Hurt or Engaging is Online Bullying!

Of course you have. As I’ve said, while we have made great strides in protecting children in this country and the world as a whole, children still get hurt by adults and by other children. While our conversation on Bullying could likely use a re-examination (check out the book Bully Nation by Susan Evaporter), we certainly do need to help children engage online safely and more effectively. The answer to helping children that are acting out online is not to condemn the tool or ban its access (prohibition never works to begin with), but engage children and adolescents with empathy. Technology is not the cause of adolescent misbehavior, but rather an amplifier. The adolescent that is arranging to meet strangers online for trysts is clearly troubled and in need of adult intervention and help. A student discussing their depression or contemplating self-harm needs medical and social support. In fact, there are numerous examples of peers intervening to help one another when they see something online.

Benefits of Teens Engaging Online

Rather than lamenting the fact that teenagers are being corrupted by devices, I think it’s important to highlight what they can do more effectively because they are engaged. For one, children and adolescents are writing now more than ever. And no, they are not handing in essays in emoji and textese, they know the difference of context. Just as none of us were Shakespeare at 15 (not even Shakespeare), their writing still needs to grow. However, between social media, online forums, and other digital spaces, they write more than the average adolescent of our generation.

They are also creating meaningful connections online. For example, students in a Chinese class can engage another class in China. Learning to text in another language is a great form of cultural immersion as well as a means to grow language skills in context! Students are building (and even selling) apps, creating online YouTube sensations, and are even more up to date on current events than their parents (they’re also less likely to fall for Fake News than their more mature counterparts, aka US).

The reality is, technology and the internet is not ruining this generation. The kids… the kids are alright.

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4 thoughts on “The Kids are Alright: The Internet is NOT Destroying a Generation

  1. Michael Hulshof-Schmidt

    Very interesting article. I am curious to see more research on the impact of social media on youth and the ability or inability of youth to read social cues and how they interact in community as opposed to how they interact in just a virtual community. I am also thinking of Jessica Valenti’s article on the negative impact of Facebook on young women in particular. This is a good read, Jennifer. Thank you for sharing it.

    Reply
    1. Jennifer Carey Post author

      Michael, definitely take a look at danah boyd’s book (linked above). My brief statement does not remotely do it justice. It is meticulously researched and cited. You would especially love her devotion to equity. I always look to danah to keep me on track when it comes to social justice in technology.

      Reply
    2. Jennifer Carey Post author

      Also, while Social Media is a component of how adolescents engage with others, it is not the entirety or even the majority of it. Children still engage with others at school, in sports, or in other activities (structured and unstructured).

      Reply
  2. Katie Siemer

    Jennifer, Thanks for writing this. I love that you point out adults can be just as bad! My husband and I instituted a “no phones at dinner” rule because we were constantly checking email and social media. If adults are going to do it, of course teenagers are! I also liked the part about the internet being “too dangerous”. Far too often I go into schools that block, block, block, instead of modeling appropriate behaviors. Teachers and students often miss out on accessing websites that would provide a great educational experience for a particular lesson because of this. Thanks for your thoughts!

    Reply

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