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...
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?"