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Is it worse or is it simply different?

So the next time you see a friend, or a child, spending too much of their day facing a screen, extend a hand and invite him back to the world of real social encounters. You’ll not only build up his health and empathic skills, but yours as well. Friends don’t let friends lose their capacity for humanity. -  Your phone vs your heart (NYT, March 23), Barbara Fredrickson

Vivian, a reader of Jeff Utecht's Thinking Stick blog, left a long and thoughtful comment in response to a bit of back and forth Jeff and I had over social media a few months ago. In the comment, she describes a large gap in both the perception and use of social media between generations. She writes:

It seems every time the topic of “technology” comes up, the skeptical ones bring up the differences between face2face and social media: “Yes, I see the differences too. Yes, I agree that social media can’t compare to face2face, in many ways. YES, I am TERRIFIED at how the world is changing because all the kids are stuck to their screens.”

I’m a Mom of 4! I feel like I’m always trying to get my kids to balance themselves between “on-screen” and “off-screen”. But, I feel it’s like trying to hold back ocean waves. The waves keep on coming. Closer and closer. Louder and louder. I can’t keep up with trying to stem the tide.


The kids feel that their online friends and relationships are just as important as their off-line friends.” (Often their off-line friends become their on-line friends and vice-versa.) So, the discussion is rather MOOT, don’t you think? At the end of the day, we can have our academic discussions and rants, but what does it matter? What matters is what the kids don’t see the difference and I’m not too sure there IS a difference for them. So, let’s deal with that reality instead of wishing that our old reality was still with us. (The Old Reality being when friends were people we interacted with face2face) [Interesting comparison to Fredrickson's concerns in opening quote. - Doug]

I hear you, Vivian.

My grandsons' world is far different from my own in many respects. While I bemoan the lack of time kids today spend outdoors, I am stunned by the rich learning experiences they have online. While I am appalled by the testing and political correctness of today's educational system, I am also in awe of some of learning experiences today's students have and am glad that corporal punishment is gone and that special needs students are not simply being warehoused. Many of today's television shows, movies and even YA books offend me with their shallow and course treatment of human beings, but I also recognize that the best stuff is far better than what I had access to as a kid.

So here are a few things I try to keep in mind...

  1. Just because it is different, doesn't make it worse. I don't think anyone really knows how technology will impact the human race in the long run. We may be those obese creatures mindless slurping soft drinks in floating arm chairs as seen in WALL-E or a new race liberated from daily work who can enjoy a utopia free of need and violence. My bet is on some middle ground.
  2. I have very limited control over societal and technical forces. As much as I may be fearful or resistant to change, some things are just plain out of my control. How I adapt to such things is more realistic than how hard I fight against them. (See These Horse Are Out of the Barn.)
  3. Teaching good values is more important than ever. Regardless of the technologies we use to communicate and create, the ethical considerations made don't really change. The respect we show to others, to property and privacy, and to ourselves, seems little different to me whether in chat or in person.
  4. The most successful children will be those who are challenged to use the tools of today, not be protected from them. More than anytime in the history of the world, learning, adaptation, reflection, and creativity are important to not just success, but to survival. We are handicapping children by not giving them opportunities to learn, to make "safe mistakes," and to develop technology-enhanced skill sets.
  5. From my grandchildren's point of view, this is the best world ever. We chronologically-gifted folks do not do our children or grandchildren any favors by making them feel the world today is worse than the one we grew up in. I hope they take joy in being alive today. That this is the best of all possible times to be alive (and in many, many ways it is.) That while we should identify and work to solve today's problems, we should also recognize and rejoice in all the social and technological miracles we enjoy. 

I remember hearing Jennifer James, a social anthropologist, speak at a conference many years ago. She said that there is a reason that many older people often complain that "the world is going to hell in a hand basket." It's simply because that for most of us at some point recognize our own mortality, that we accept our time on earth is finite. When that happens, it is more psychologically acceptable to be leaving a world that is getting worse than one that is getting better.

 Next time something new comes along, ask yourself, "Is it worse - or simply different?" 

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Reader Comments (6)

Hello Doug,

I've dropped by your cottage for a chat today. Very lovely blue colour. NOW, I get Jeff's reference to "catching the Blue Skunk by its tail". I thought it was some sort of American expression that was so deep that even this North American couldn't catch it.

All your references about how you feel about your grandkids are exactly how I feel about my own kids.

I was telling someone that I feel schizophrenic and hypocritical a lot of days. At one moment, I'm encouraging my children to use technology to express their creativity. The other moment, I'm threatening to throw the computer away. I see the benefits of ICT as an educator but I feel the fears as a parent. I flip-flop back and forth.

I totally agree with advice at the end of your blog. There is much to be said for a strong family-unit, caring & informed & involved parents to mitigate "screen-time slush brain". We can extend this to the need for caring & informed & involved teachers in partnership with the parents.

I think every generation has its angst. For us, our parents worried about too much TV and too much time on the telephone. Today, we worry about too much computer screen-time and too much Social Media. (I don't recall there being any recent research proving that TV ruined my generation's education...)

You're right that our core values haven't changed though the world has changed. I think this simple but powerful reminder needs to be brought forward more often. (Someone make an infographic about it!) We're looking for the research and the reassurance from the scientists but none is forthcoming for another generation perhaps. Maybe we should go back the message of these core values to deal with the angst and to silence the squabbling.

Thank you for the compliment of quoting my comments from Jeff's site. It's great that we have freedom to dialogue and to challenge each others' thinking. Social Media isn't all that bad. I feel like I've connected with a kindred spirit today. :D

Warm regards,


March 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVivian

Hi Vivian,

Thanks again for the conversation. These kinds of exchanges make all the social networking fuss worthwhile.

I don't envy today's parents as they try to define and regulate "screen time." Unlike in my childhood (and my own children's), the iPad and other devices seem to offer so much more of a positive nature than the moronic cartoons and passive viewing of the past. We encourage reading - does it matter if it is on the screen instead of on paper. We want writers. Does it matter if they write on paper or in a blog? We want problem-solvers, cooperative team players, and numerate students. Does it matter if they are gaining these skills online?

Like I say, I am very glad I only have the role of "grandpa" who can spoil the grands and then send them home!


March 28, 2013 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Those are also excellent points that I will keep in mind and share with people who challenge me about Social Media. Thanks!

March 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVivian

Hello Doug

I just finished writing a blog and I realized that it could link-up to your question, "Is it worse or is it simply different?" and also discusses indirectly how technology allows for positive-interaction from the children in their learning (and not just passive watching).


March 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVivian

Thanks, Vivian.

Blue Skunk readers, jump over to Vivian's entry. Well worth reading!

Seems I need to be logged in to comment on the COETail blog, but wanted to let you know that your story resonated with me on two levels.

The first was thinking about my now 39 year old daughter when she was probably 5 or 6. We started watching the movie Charlotte's web on television (before VCRs, streaming media, etc.). The first half was shown one week and the second half a week later. Carrie, my daughter, got so involved in the story, we had to read the entire book before the second half came on. I still smile thinking about here concern over Wilber and Charlotte. Good stories are how we build empathy, I truly believe.

The second thing I thought about was the guilt I felt over giving my grandsons iPads for Christmas this year and finding my first grader Miles using it primarily to play Minecraft. It was only when I started reading a lot of articles on the educational uses of Minecraft (and forwarding them to his parent) that I felt less like a bad grandpa!

Thanks for link to your story! I hope you had a lovely Canadian Easter.


April 1, 2013 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Hello Doug

Thanks for taking the time to comment here even though you couldn't on my Coetail site. I think they only allow internal posting at Coetail since most of us are new to blogging and we need the security of an internal commenting system as newbies.

Your daughter and I share the same "generation". I remember scouring the TV guide to circle the shows I wanted. Those 2-part movies were hard to wait for, but we appreciated what we could get on TV. I looked forward to Saturday morning cartoons all week long. After school cartoons were only 1 hour (Flintstones and Looney Tunes). We all talked about the same shows at school since we all watched the same things. There were only 3 channels!

Here is a website link in regards to tablet use and young children.

The website suggests that tablet use is better than passive TV/movie watching since it is interactive. It also reinforces balance which I think is the key to navigate these new technologies. I'm sure your grandkids are not short on conversation with such an interesting grandpa so I wouldn't feel guilty about the iPads. In fact, I think they are super lucky to have such a progressive grandpa that even knows what an iPad is!

My kids have bricked a windows computer and had their browsers hi-jacked a few times. I go in and sort it all out for them. My greatest triumph is when they bricked a Windows XP operating system and I had a Windows 98 floppy disk kicking around and I was able to somehow get it to format the computer. It was a fluke it worked but I told them, "You have no idea how lucky you are to have a Mom that knows what she's doing in computers!". It's the same with your grandkids so don't feel guilty for the technology because you also bring a wealth of knowledge that no "ordinary" grandpa does. They are blessed!

Bye for now and thanks for the conversation.


April 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVivian

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