Consider the following four articles on the dangers of youth exposure to too much digital culture:
all of which cropped up in today’s online news. Together, they pretty much exemplify the fears of the Builders, the Baby Boomers and, to a certain extent, the elder members of Generation X, not just as regards their own offspring, but concerning all of modern society. Loud and clear, they’ve been wringing their hands for the past few years over the perils of digitisation, and every time, I’ve experienced a disqueting lurch of anger. It’s taken today’s media quartet for me to understand why this is: after all, cynic though I may be, I still put a certain base faith in the opinions of scientists and sociologists, especially when backed up by established studies. As a member of Generation Y, I’m hardly an impartial observer, and to a large extent, my negative reactions stem from a sense of being personally maligned, even where certain behaviours or criticisms don’t apply either to me as I am now, or to my historic teenage self. Rather, I feel outraged on behalf of my generation and those younger: that we are, in some sense, being fundamentally misunderstood. I can hack criticism, yes; but the sheer weight of professional authorities whose time has been purposefully devoted to proving that almost everyone under the age of 25 is steering themselves on a course towards social oblivion has begun to seem less like the amalgamated findings of unbiased research and more like an unconscious desire to demonise technology.
When it comes to growing up, it’s human nature to get fixed in whatever era raised us. Modern society is shaped, by and large, to ensure this happens – advertising and television timeslots, for instance, aren’t shown at random, but painstakingly catered to particular demographics. Thus, once we lose interests in the trappings of a given age and progress to playing with a new kind of gadget or watching a different kind of film, we effectively graduate from one type of newsfeed to another. Not watching weekend and afterschool cartoons, for example, means that we no longer learn which shows are cancelled and which will replace them, and that certain products, like the latest toys and games, will no longer form part of our daily media experience. Because our interest in such things has waned, we don’t notice the dissonance: rather, we assume that things have remained static in our absence, and are often startled in a moment of later nostalgia when, flipping on the TV at 3pm, we recognise none of the cartoon characters, none of the hosts, and none of the merchandise. Such disorientation provokes outrage: who are these strangers, and what have they done with our childhood? This biases our opinion of the new product towards hostility and skepticism from the outset; and even when we take the time to watch these new shows, the magic is missing, because we are no longer children. Wrongheadedly, however, we don’t immediately identify this as the problem, and tend to believe, rather, that the product itself is at fault. In fact, it becomes difficult to fathom what kind of person such programmes are catered to, and so, by extension and quite unselfconsciously, we have already taken the first steps towards discrediting the intelligence and taste of the next generation. This outrage slumbers in us, omnipresent but quiescent, until we have children of our own, or are forced to deal with someone else’s. Nonetheless, it is there.
Consider, then, that the technological advances of the past few decades have leapt ahead at unprecedented speeds. In the space of twenty years, we have moved from cassette tapes and walkmans to CDs and discmans to the now-ubiquitous mp3s and iPods of the new millenium. For a generation who started out buying their albums on LP, this is triply disconcerting, while for the generation who thought themselves blessed by the miracle of radio, it seems like a kind of magic. This is all common knowledge, of course, and therefore glossed with the shiny patina of frequent repetition: by itself, the comparison doesn’t provide an explanation for the hostility of older generations. Until, that is, we combine it with the above example about treasured childhood cartoons, because in this instance, not only are the new characters unrecognisable, but they don’t even appear on the same device.
And adults struggle with this. They are disconnected from their offspring, from their students; more important than connectivity and reminiscence, however, is the loss of firsthand advice. They simply cannot guide today’s teenagers through the digital world, which leads most youth to discover it on their own. Most of us who grew up with computers and videogames are either several years away from reproducing or blessed with children still in early primary-school: in other words, we are yet to witness what happens when a generation of adolescents is reared by a generation of adults anywhere near as technologically literate as their teenage progeny, who remember what it was like to hang out on Trillian or MSN chat all night, to experiment with cybersex, to write achingly of school crushes in their LiveJournal or to download music at home. Members of Generations Y and Z, in other words, in addition to being burgeoning iFolk, are also a social anomaly: a group whose own adolescence is so far removed from the experience of their caretakers as to prevent their parents and teachers, in many instances, from adequately preparing them for the real (digital) world.
But the gap will close. Already there are children in the world whose parents own game consoles, who will guide them online from a young age, and whose joint mannerisms both in real and virtual company will be drawn from a single parental source. Navigating away from certain parts of the internet will be taught in the same way as stranger danger and the implict lesson to avoid dangerous parts of the local neighbourhood. We teach what we know, after all, and yet large number of commentators seem not to have realised this – which is why I react badly to their writings. They never purport to be talking about teenagers now so much as teenagers always, or from this point on, a frustrating alarmism that takes no account of what will happen when such adolescents leave home, stumble into the bright sunlight, go to university, get jobs, fall in love and maybe have children of their own. In short, they have no sense of the future, or if so, they picture a world populated by antisocial digital natives, uprooting the fruits of their hard labour out of ignorance, apathy and poor management. Either they can’t imagine us growing up, or fear what we’ll turn into.
I’m speaking here in broad-brush terms. Obviously, the distinction between those who are technologically literate and those who aren’t can’t simply be reduced to their year of birth. Every generation has its Luddites (and, if we remember the political motivations of those original iconoclasts, this is often a good thing) as well as its innovators, its geeks and scientists. And many such worried articles, irksome though I may find their tone, are still correct: listening to your iPod on full volume will probably damage your hearing, just as it’s not a wise idea to post intimate details of your sex life on MySpace. The latter concern is markedly new, and something teens certainly need to be made aware of – indeed, professionals new to Facebook are still themselves figuring out whether to friend coworkers or employers, thereby allowing them to view the results of various drunken nights out, or to keep a low digital profile. Such wisdom is new all round, and deeply appreciated. On the other hand, parents have been telling their kids to turn down their damn music in one form or another ever since Elvis Presley first picked up a guitar, and while the technology might’ve become more powerful in the intervening decades and the studies into auditory damage more accurate, the warning remains identical (as does the inter-generational eye-roll with which it tends to be received).
In short, the world is changing, and people are changing with it, teachers, teens and parents alike. And I cannot help, in my own curious optimism, to see this as a positive thing: that in a world where technology moves so swiftly, older generations must constantly remain open to the idea of learning from their younger counterparts, while those in the know must become teachers earlier. There is so much to be gained in the coming years, and so many problems, both great and small, to be solved. The gap between adults and adolescents has never been so large, but while it always behooves those in the former category to teach and aid the latter, this should never be at the expense of at least trying to understand their point of view. And this, ultimately, is what causes me to bristle: whether playing videogames can hurt your hands or spending too much time online can damage your real world social skills, such passtimes aren’t going anywhere. Rather than condemning or sneering at such things outright or tutting sadly, the more productive path is to consider how best they can be incorporated into modern life without causing harm, or to study how they work in confluence with real-world interactions, and not just fret about what happens if they’re used exclusively.
Because technology – and future generations – aren’t going anywhere. We might not look like Inspector Gadget, but baby, we’re his heirs. Or rather, Penny’s. You get the idea.