Recently I’ve waded into several threads on social media about youth and digital media. One was sparked by the sharing of the tweet shown on the left, which turns out to be not at all what it appears to be. (If you haven’t read about the real context of the photo and tweet, please follow the link and read the article.) People my age sure love to predict doom and gloom as the result of young people and their use of technology. Recently I have been told in no uncertain terms that technology is causing frightening epidemics of ADHD, loss of colour perception, obesity, learning disabilities, brain tumours, diabetes, loss of curiosity, the death of imagination, violence, mass killings, suicide, stunted social skills, narcissism, anxiety, sleep problems and a toxically shallow focus on instant gratification and body image.
While I don’t doubt that in some situations technology can play a potentiating role in some of these issues, I have to wonder whether the people spouting these doom-and-gloom messages actually know any real teenagers. They extrapolate from ancient epidemiologic surveys of (passive) TV habits, or studies based on use of 1990s video games. They seem to have little appreciation for the way screentime is allocated by teens today … serving the roles that cameras, daytimers, telephones, maps, encyclopedias, postal systems, file cabinets, radios, watches, calculators and notebooks served in the past.
They decry the preponderance of selfies and WOW leagues for “the damage this does to teenage girls” and “stoking violent urges in teenage boys.” And yet when I explain that the teens I know are using phones to do things like video the choreography that goes with their new choir song, or to collaborate with friends on an honours physics homework problem, or to network on social justice issues, they seem to think that my examples are some sort of anomaly resulting from exceptional parenting, small town values and clean mountain air.
I don’t think so. I think that if actually you look at and listen to youth today, rather than leaping to judge based on assumptions as with the photo above, you will find that they are far more sensitive, sensible and nuanced in their use of technology than we old farts are. They are the experts. They are in the trenches with technology used in 2017, rather than extrapolating from 1990s data.
It would be little more than a disconnect in generational understanding if it weren’t for the fact that the fear and judgement of adults actually increases the risks they’re concerned about.
By way of example I offer up the epiphany I had with Noah when he was in the throes of his mid-adolescent obsession with computer games. For years I had watched his escalating computer use with concern, doing everything short of bribing and punishing to “encourage his ability to self-regulate.” We talked about it all the time but it just didn’t seem to be working. He was spending more and more time on the computer, and less and less time at other things.
Then I realized the message that my ongoing effort to encourage him to rein in his screen time was sending: this activity that you find endlessly fascinating and rewarding is something I don’t value and don’t wish to support. This passionate interest you have is something about you that I find distasteful.
(The crazy thing is that it wasn’t even true! I have always loved computers and found them fascinating. If I had my life to live over again I probably would go into some sort of IT field. But I was bending to the prevailing winds of parental guilt-making on the subject of screen time.)
Because he felt kind of lousy about the fact that he had this interest, he tended to engage in it as quietly as possible — often late into the night — with an overlay of ambivalence and guilt. He didn’t feel comfortable sharing his excitement over things he had discovered, because he felt no one would understand or care. He knew that in his parents’ ideal world he’d be off the computer doing something else, and so his time sitting in front of the screen had the subtle overlay of the forbidden fruit: best to grab what you can, because perhaps it will not be so available in the future.
After my epiphany about how my own responses could actually be making the issue bigger and more problematic for him and all of us, I starting trying to change the way I interacted with him over it. I took an interest. I asked him to explain to me what was so cool about this game, what the sandbox editor let him do, what a physics game engine was, what he was tinkering with. I expressed (genuine) awe over the things he had been able to figure out, the mods and levels and scripts he was writing. I told him that if there were software tools that he felt would be helpful to purchase, he should ask, and I would do my best to provide that support.
And I don’t know whether it was a coincidence or not, but almost immediately his use of the computer seemed to change. He started spending less time at the more passive pursuits of playing and watching others play, and more time creating, researching, tinkering, learning. He began more ambitious projects. He developed side interests and a deeper appreciation of things like soundtrack composition, the disruptive economics of software development and the mathematics of gravity simulations and dynamic mapping. I suppose it could have been a coincidence, or maybe I just hadn’t been able to see it because I didn’t want to look. But I think there really was a change, and I can’t help but think that my validation of his interest played a role.
Once he felt like the adults in his life were taking an interest in his computer use rather than implicitly devaluing it, he felt optimistic and confident about stepping up his game. He was no longer cast in a Billy-Elliot-like role, loving something his parents seemed ashamed of. Knowing that his efforts and ambitions were likely to be proudly supported, he was much more inclined to act on them. And act he did, with talent that blossomed.
In the ensuing years he joined the local tech/gaming club and did a bunch of volunteering with them. He met the group of local teens with similar interests, and developed some healthy long-term real-life relationships. He was pulled into the sphere of the developing Youth Centre and served as a Youth Director on the board for a time. He attended Village Council meetings as an advocate for youth recreation funding. He developed some brief but pivotal mentoring relationships with adults working in tech fields. And subsequently he was hired around town in heritage-and-tourism-related jobs that leveraged his computer and social media skill set, getting all sorts of positive feedback from his employers.
His computer gaming was only a stunting addictive activity for as long as I treated it that way. Once I suspended my judgement and began really watching and listening, it became clear it was a pathway to creativity, healthy social relationships, community service, intellectual challenge, employability and higher education.
And so my plea to my own generation is this: don’t judge teens’ use of technology without doing them the courtesy of understanding and appreciating what they’re actually doing, and where they are really going with it. We are not the experts who have to rescue them from the folly of their inexperience; we need to listen to the experts and on this matter they are the experts.