For the record, let’s stipulate that there’s a lot of worthless, if not downright offensive, material online and that some who lurk in cyberspace have less than honorable intentions. Let’s agree, too, that some of us are smitten, perhaps too much, by our tech toys. Accordingly, MIT professor Sherry Turkle warns us in her new, must-read book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other, we ought to consider the “price” of our “enchantment” with technology.
But as Turkle is quick to remind us, the Internet isn’t going anywhere. It will continue to change everything from our relationships to our professions to the way we think about life. The question of how it will change us, though, is up to us. Howard Rheingold, the man who coined the terms “virtual communities” and “smart mobs” and has had a front-row seat on the unfolding drama of the Internet, puts it this way:
Will our grandchildren grow up knowing how to pluck the answer to any question out of the air, summon their social networks to assist them personally or professionally, organize political movements and markets online? Will they collaborate to solve problems, participate in online discussions as a form of civic engagement, share and teach and learn to their benefit and that of everyone else? Or will they grow up knowing that the online world is a bewildering puzzle to which they have few clues, a dangerous neighborhood where their identities can be stolen, a morass of spam and porn, misinformation and disinformation, urban legends, hoaxes, and scams?… the humanity or toxicity of next year’s digital culture depends to a very large degree on what we know, learn, and teach each other.
Call me an optimist, but I think we can seize the digital future–ironically by joining forces and sharing the experience with digital natives–children and teens who have grown up with the Net (if not your own, a friend’s or neighbors’ kid!). This might seem counterintuitive. Aren’t we supposed to restrict screen time and offset kids craving for gadgets and texting? Don’t we fret that digital natives will never love books the way we do and worry about how their brains are being affected by so much digital stimulation? The problem is, we sometimes forget that we’re navigating the same territory. The kid who doesn’t hear Mom calling him is no different from the Dad who zones out with his Blackberry at the dinner table. Both generations need help–and in some instances, the kids know more than we do. (And if you don't believe that, spend a few minutes listening to 12-year-old Adora Svitak's TED Talk, What Adults Can Learn from Children.)
The good news, Turkle stresses, is that the Internet is still young. She assures us that there is “time to make corrections.”
We don’t need to reject or disparage technology. We need to put it in its place. The generation that has grown up with the net is in a good position to do this, but these young people need help… we must be their partners.
We can throw our hands up and shudder at the thought of what will happen if we don't become more mindful about technology. But we can also imagine what can happen when we bond with digital natives to become allies and fellow adventurers in cyberspace:
1. We'll all become more Internet “literate.” Granted, the older user must be the limit-setter, the proctor, and the protector. From the day a child has his own email address or logs on to one of the many pre-Facebook sites geared to kids, they need guidelines and the assurance that we’re paying attention. As one cyber-savvy mother, who knows the passwords to all her son’s and daughter’s online accounts, told me, “I’ve never actually had to check up on them, but they know that I can.” But the teaching and learning go both ways. Try to understand how his video games work–the skills needed, the levels, the kind of thinking it encourages. Try Wii if you haven’t already. Sit down next to her at the computer or while she’s playing with a hand-held device. Ask questions and try to see it all from the digital native’s perspective. And while your at it, ask for help that you genuinely need, say in setting up your Facebook page or blog.
2. We'll enter their world. Family therapist Ron Taffel advises parents to become acquainted with their child’s “second family”– that aggregate force of the pop culture and peer group that can seduce a vulnerable kid away from their first family. That book (full disclosure: I co-authored it) came out in 2001, but the message is even more important a decade later, especially in light of Turkle’s finding that children today crave their tech-distracted parents’ attention. Sharing Internet strategies can establish a healthy give-and-take. Tooling around on line with a child opens a door to what they’re into, what attracts them, what obsesses them, who they meet on line and where they go as a result of those interests.
3. We'll begin to develop an Internet etiquette. In the old days, smart parents taught their children how to speak on the telephone, just as they taught them how to say “please” and “thank you” and to shake hands and look people in the eye. Now, everyone–young and old–needs to understand what’s polite, civil, and moral online and on cell phones. What is appropriate language and content for in email? How do you “converse” via Skype? What kind of information do you post on social networking sites? How do you forge a new relationship–or reject someone? Share your own war stories–perhaps how you accidentally insulted someone or misread and overreacted to a comment–and listen to theirs. Of course, lead by example. If you are respectful, thoughtful, and vigilant about how you behave on line, they’re more likely to be that way, too.
4. We’ll all become better at “crap detection.” Howard Rheingold–obviously a great coiner of terms–also came up with infotention to describe “the psycho-social-techno skill/tools” that children and adults need for their forays online. Among those skills is “crap detection.” Digital natives learn fast, and many of them are not only appropriately wary, they’re also open to cautionary tales. My teenage nieces were spellbound at a family gathering as I told them a very long story about a woman who fooled me into believing that she was a teenager. Luckily, all she want was my attention. But my close call encouraged them to share stories of their own. Look for such teachable moments throughout the day. For example, my eight-year-old grandson just got his own gmail account. My first email to him was, “How do I know this is really you?”
5. We'll maintain an ongoing conversation. Talking about technology is like talking about sex: You need to keep having “the discussion.” The sites, the apps, the proliferation of gadgets, are constantly changeing phenomena that bring wonder–and pressure–into our lives. We are in touch with many people and, at the same time, overwhelmed. As social critic Doug Rushkoff, author of Program or Be Programmed, puts it, "The Internet has changed from a thing one does to a way one lives." If the lightening speed of Internet development tells us anything, it’s that something new and unanticipated will be tugging at our attention six months from now, if not soon. Also, as children grow, their understanding of the terrain will change. Some already know that gossip can take on a life of its own and, worse, never disappears. We need to keep talking about how information travels and how to (safely) seize opportunities to connect. We need to ask, what does it mean to being part of a bigger whole? Or, for that matter, to be constantly in touch with your network? And what about privacy? Although the answers are different for each of us, we must keep asking ourselves such questions.
6. Together, we can right-size the Internet. All of us have to find ways to manage our attention and to integrate online life with face-to-face time. Parents hold “family meetings” to talk about curfews and house rules and privileges. It makes sense to jointly figure out how to manage technology. So, gather up the children you live with or children you now and ponder the questions together: Just how much attention is being drained from face-to-face conversation by our games and gadgets? Are we inadvertently cutting back family time and forgoing other experiences IRL–in real life? Are we shortchanging our relationships with one another or with nature because we are so immersed in the digital domain?
Sherry Turkle, who spent fifteen years writing her book, conducting studies, interviewing children, teenagers, and adults, ends her book with two telling–and hopeful–sentences.
We deserve better. When we remind ourselves that it is we who decide how to keep technology busy, we shall have better.