Generation Facebook: Bridging the Digital Divide
These days the parents around me talk about the digital divide: our children are digital natives and we are immigrants, halting speakers of a second language no matter how tech-smart we think we are. There’s a new generation gap yawning, they say. Just as my Yiddish-speaking great-grandparents struggled to understand their rapidly Americanizing offspring a century ago, I will be increasingly out of step with my children as they assimilate in a networked world, learning skills I don’t have and facing hazards I can’t grasp. The implication is: be afraid.
I don’t buy it. Technology is not culture, and using it does not require new manners and mores. It’s just another tool—like a car, like a corkscrew—that can make life more productive and more pleasurable, and that needs to be understood before it can be used wisely. My husband and I take good care of our car, we drive safely, and we expect our children to do the same. They are only ten and seven, but they are learning: what the symbols on the dashboard mean, how to fill a tank with gas. They are years from the drinking age, but when we have a glass of wine with dinner they dip their pinkies and taste—there’s no taboo, and we hope no titillation when alcohol does enter their social lives. It’s our job to teach them this stuff while they’re still listening to us, before the distracting voices of friends, roommates, and love interests join in.
I am not a techie—the only app on my iPhone is a carpenter’s level; I still get the New York Times delivered every day—but that does not mean I’m a dinosaur. I’m learning my way around Facebook at 39 instead of 13 (Facebook’s official minimum age), but I catch on quick, and it’s not that complicated. If Facebook is something my children are going to use, then it’s my job to learn it too. I don’t want them experimenting with something I don’t understand—something that, like alcohol, can be a pathway to both pleasure and harm. I may have Luddite tendencies, but as a parent I don’t have the luxury of indulging them.
I went to see “The Social Network” last week, and enjoyed it as much as anyone, but I’m sick of reviewers telling me that people my age and older see the film one way (Mark Zuckerberg as sinister puppet master), and younger wired types see it another (Mark Zuckerberg as misunderstood hero). As Aaron Sorkin told New York Magazine, the screenplay he wrote could just as easily be about “the invention of a really good toaster”: it’s a classic story of alienation, inspiration, and the sacrifice of friendship to ambition, speeded up for the communications age. We’re not talking about Elvis here, swiveling his hips in the widening space between rebellious teenagers and their prudish parents. Mark Zuckerberg’s creation is a tool, essentially neutral—it’s how you use it that matters.
Social networking online doesn’t change you, it just amplifies who you already are: private types ignore most of it, exhibitionists have endless new arenas in which to perform, gawkers gawk, procrastinators procrastinate. But a ten-year-old is only partly formed, and she certainly shouldn’t finish the job on Facebook, a place more public and more permanent than a child can begin to imagine. At curriculum night there’s always a parent with a hand up, asking how the school teaches Internet safety. But kids don’t experiment online at school, they do it at home—it’s not the teachers who have the primary responsibility for keeping them safe, it’s us. I don’t let my children wander aimlessly on the streets of New York, and I don’t let them wander in cyberspace either. But to do that I have to know my way around.
So no, I’m not afraid, just alert: to the example I set in my own use of technology, to the scrapes children can find themselves in online, and to the new skills my children are acquiring, and can teach me. My daughter came home the other day and reported that she was one of only three kids in her fifth-grade classroom without an e-mail address. Did she want one, I asked? “I guess so,” she said. “But I’m not really sure what I’d do with it.” We’re going to set one up for her this weekend—before she really needs it, and while she’ll still let us teach her how to use it gracefully.
My children’s technological prowess will outstrip mine, and I’m not interested in keeping up with them. But the gap that will open between us will not be cultural. I will take an interest in their new apps and gadgets, and share their delight in them, even if I choose not to use them. And they will understand the pleasure of a good book or a well-crafted thank-you note, even though mine are on paper and theirs on a screen. Our tools will be different. But by the time they are adults, I hope they will have learned all our lessons about using them wisely. I plan to be good friends with my children when they’re grown, and not just on Facebook.
Photo by Erik Hersman
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