August 28, 2016. The day that marked the beginning of my daughter’s relentless pleading for her very own iPhone. Thunder rumbled across an iCloud-filled sky as I sensed the greatest oncoming challenge to my parenting skills since the same girl brought home her first recorder.
The meager resistance I offered crumbled fairly quickly. It was half-hearted at best, rooted less in logic and economics than pure envy. The memories were still too vivid of a childhood marked by hand-me-down winter coats and bicycles, and a television with a broken knob that required a pair of pliers to change channels. My 12 year-old self would have turned cartwheels at the prospect of a new baseball glove, and here was my 6th grader asking for her own supercomputer, complete with phone, high resolution camera, GPS, and vast libraries of music and videos.
Smartphones. Dick’s Sporting Goods. Chipotle. Our kids don’t need to vacation in Magic Kingdom, they’re living in it. In the 1980s, we had iconic music to be sure, but we knew nothing of modern wonders, saddled instead with primitive Atari, incomprehensible hair styles, and four seasons of Alf.
The 21st Century has ushered us into an era like no other. The current generation of school age children has no memory of the analog world of turntables, payphones, and encyclopedias made of paper and ink. They would have to visit the Smithsonian to learn how to use a folding map or camera film, or learn Doritos once came in only a single flavor – Doritos.
I’m firmly in the camp that believes the virtues of technology far outweigh any drawbacks, but there are detractors. Some argue these devices are turning our children into unsociable zombies. My in-laws paid a recent visit, and were somewhat taken aback by their pre-teen granddaughter choosing to spend untold hours sequestered in her locked bedroom, alone with her iPhone.
The daughter glued to a telephone in self-exile is nothing new to American families; just ask Mike Brady and Danny Tanner. But corded phones and record players are relics now, replaced by a panoply of wildly popular apps adorning a device that quite literally places the world at a young person’s fingertips.
Hence the conundrum we have stumbled into. How deep do we allow our children to venture into this virtual environment, knowing that every minute a child spends on their device accessing information, communicating with friends, and connecting to some, they are at risk of becoming less informed, less communicative, and less connected to others? As we plow ahead into unchartered territory, many of us are reflexively pumping the brakes, and sputtering out arbitrary rules that from a child’s perspective lack any rationality or fairness.
The parental messaging in years prior was so much simpler, drawn from a playbook handed down from generation to generation. Be wary of strangers. Just say no to drugs. You will not leave the house dressed like that. But the Information Age demands greater pragmatism, as every technological breakthrough – access to unlimited information, innovative platforms for self-expression, and so on – is fraught with implications. Children unable to articulate themselves in complete sentences that aren’t burst transmissions and don’t involve acronyms and emoticons. The association of likes and followers with popularity and social acceptance. And those dreaded scourges of childhood, bullying and cruelty, that have plagued classrooms and playgrounds for decades. Never before have antagonists been able to ridicule and embarrass their victims with such ease and, if they choose, anonymity.
Simply attempting to stem the tide of technology is no answer, as a previous generation learned when they barked at their kids to stay away from rock and roll and miniskirts. So strong are our protective instincts that perhaps we are failing to appreciate a sea change in how this generation views socialization, and its counterweight, personal privacy.
Snapchat and Instagram are the current youth obsessions, mostly for features that enable users to create “stories” from photos and short videos and share those stories with followers. I am beyond mystified why any of her classmates would want to watch a sequence of my daughter arriving at softball practice, holding a frothy drink from Starbucks, and stretching out next to the family cat. But their zeal to do so is surpassed only by their zeal to share their own stories. They consider their lives open books, and their mobile devices social lifelines. Most don’t covet privacy because privacy only obfuscates, in their view, what they can see and share.
Sure, we draw boundaries. Our daughter’s phone is tied to her grades, her behavior towards others, and our monitoring of her social media accounts. She’s had one slip, one that resulted in a sentence of four days with a flip phone. She survived that horror, and needless to say, there hasn’t been another slip since.
Every family has its own rules. Some we know are following North Korea’s lead, imposing stringent time limits on screen time, forbidding social media accounts, or even denying their kids access to mobile devices. Others fall on the other end of the spectrum, leaving their kids to free range on these virtual playgrounds. Most are somewhere in between, as are we. Understanding the value of information and communication, and willing to allow their children to explore calm waters, even as they remain watchful of the riptides that easily pull kids into the darker corners of the Internet.
Lost in this digital wilderness, I could use some Siri-esque words of wisdom. I trust my daughter, but I’m also aware of the crushing weight of peer pressure and the yearning for social acceptance at that age. We’ll continue to instill in her good values, and emphasize the need for empathy and balance in her life. We’ll prepare her best we can to make good decisions in the future, and give thanks for her love of team sports that keeps her active and outdoors. And if all that fails, it’s back to the flip phone, and perhaps a few episodes of Alf.