Tech Is Wonderful and the Kids Are Fine

Instead of fretting over how attached they seem to be to tech, why not put an alternative in front of them?

The “we are the first generation of parents to” lifestyle piece is a hardy perennial that probably shouldn’t even exist. There really is nothing new under the parenting sun; everything is just a variation on the anxieties parents have always faced. I suspect that pre-parenthood obliviousness, combined with the frighteningly intimate quality of those worries once they appear, cause a lot of parents to think there is something novel about it all.

Allison Slater Tate has the latest version: Now with Internet! Apparently those of us in Generation X had “low-tech childhoods” (the hell?) but now “we are among the first of the truly high-tech parents.” So we, unlike every previous generation of parents in human history, have to grapple with the implications of technology on our children. Because when I was a kid we were never browbeaten about how telephones were destroying our social skills, or how all we did was stare slack-jawed in front of screens for hours on end, or how pocket calculators were reducing us to button-punching ignoramuses. (Sumerian parent, circa 2500 BC: “Gilgamesh, put down that abacus and learn how to count!“)

I’m sympathetic to the concerns parents have about wanting kids who are socially adept and have acquired a taste for the subtler pleasures in life. I want that for mine as well. But agonizing over the corrupting influence of technology itself is silly. As Athenae wrote, what exactly about text messages makes teenagers not awkward and romance not sweet? Teenagers use the available technology to navigate the same waters we did, that our parents did, and on and on. They just have more tools available, and good for them. If anything, they’re doing a better job than us. A one sentence text message from my kid is roughly once sentence more than I saw fit to communicate most days with my parents when I was his age.

In pieces like Tate’s, young people do not just have access to technology, don’t just find it absorbing, but are consumed by it – sucked into a void that parents are helpless to pull them out of. First of all, sometimes it’s pretty nice to have a kid so engrossed in something that the outside world disappears. From personal experience: Three boys quietly playing handheld games in the back seat are three boys not screaming at and hitting each other. Keep that PS Vita charged up, Junior!

But beyond that, they gravitate to other things as they get older. Teenagers today, like always, 1) have an insatiable craving for that which is authentic (not manufactured, processed, targeted at them, hip, in style, whatever) and 2) pick up a lot from their parents through osmosis. On that second point, for example, one of my oldest son’s friends knows more about Lou Reed’s solo work than I do – because his dad is a huge fan and he heard Lou all the time growing up. Even without that, older things – that aren’t advertised to them but that they discover more or less on their own – have real cachet. I know a few teens more fluent in Pink Floyd than contemporary music.

Parents are not helpless observers, either. They can engage both by sharing their kids’ enthusiasms (Minecraft isn’t that hard to learn, for God’s sake) and sharing their own youthful enthusiasms. I hung on to the Great Brain books I loved as a child, and have had a lot of fun reading them to my own. Kids aren’t going to just know how cool low tech alternatives can be – more often than not they’ll need a proper introduction.

A little intuition can go a long way, too. When my oldest went crazy for Skyrim I figured he might enjoy Dungeons and Dragons. Since the only way to really learn D&D is to have someone who knows it show you the ropes, I had him invite some friends over, pulled out the old books and had them roll up some characters. Once they got the hang of it, they loved it – and began bringing friends along. (Full disclosure: I did all of this primarily because I am an arrested adolescent and still geek out over D&D as much now as I did when I was fourteen.) We have sessions every week that last several hours. Sure they check their phones, but for the most part they are interacting with each other and having a good time engaging in some improvisational storytelling.

In fact, it’s possible that today’s young people are more receptive than ever to in-person experiences. In a time of declining driver rates and pay to play extracurriculars, teenagers don’t have the occasion or ability to congregate like they used to. It’s been my observation that they leap at such opportunities when they present themselves, and see social media as a poor substitute. Instead of fretting over how attached they seem to be to tech, why not put an alternative in front of them? If they don’t dig it, try something else. If nothing seems to click, relax – kids are naturally restless. Sooner or later they’ll wander off whatever path has been laid out before them and find something they can get fired up about. And then you’ll really start to worry.

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