– by Tom Piotrowski
2000, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding
In my younger years, one of the last cartoons to come on Saturday morning was the Jetsons. Just before noon, and with a sunny day and friends beckoning, it was always a tough call to miss that wacky family from the future. What fun to dream of the whimsical life in that technologically advanced society featuring video phones, information retrieval systems, those motorized pedestrian walkways … Hey! Wait a minute, we have those things today!
Yes, we still have folks in our generation who witnessed the emergence of dozens of new technologies during the Industrial Revolution and the years following. Imagine being a spectator to the unveiling of the telephone, wireless telegraphs, radio, movies and television. Challenge a young person with the truth that there was such a time in human existence when these technologies did not exist, and they will accurately wonder, “What did people do?”
The reality, however, is the rate of technological change has more than doubled in the years since 1950, and it’s predicted the years between 1990 and 2010 will display another doubling of technology! This is an amazing time to be alive; a technological renaissance period. The rapid changes in the Information Society, however, do bring with it, burgeoning options for our youth and an equal list of headaches for those who worry about them. As a parent and teacher, I’ve often pondered what adults had to complain about in the pre-technoworldÃ¢€â€before TV, film and music lured them away like pied pipers. Were kids addicted to their Abacus? Was Copernicus exhorted for spending too much time behind the telescope? What temptations enticed unruly teenagers to wear their sheepskins too short or die their powdered wigs strange colors?
Today’s kids still spend a lot of time with the media, even with lives that are sometimes as busy as their parents. The chart on the next page, from the Kaiser Family Foundation’s recent report, punctuates the truth that parents, teachers and youth workers are being faced with unprecedented competition between their kids and new media. While turning off the TV or pulling the batteries used to do the trick, today’s concerns include cell phones, pagers, e-mail, chat rooms, MP3s, MiniDisc, DVDs, MPEG and JPEG. It’s hard enough keeping tabs what the media is, much less, how to control its use.
Television still rules the roost, with most youngsters spending around three hours a day with the tube. Don’t add together the numbers on the right half of the chart to find total usage time, as the study notes many media are used at the same time! Look at the left half of the chart for an idea of just how much time is being spent by 8- to 18-year-olds with electronic guardians. If we use a five-day week to multiply the nearly seven hours spent with the media, (excluding weekends), they log just under 34 hours. A typical student spends just a little more time than that in the classroom during a school week.
Betty Cohen of Time Warner notes that, “Today’s kids are an interactive generation. But in the history of the media, very few things have replaced other things. The feature film world was terrified when television came along, and it forced a change in the kinds of movies made. Similarly, online media won’t replace TV. There are times you want to be passive and times you want to be active.” Even though AOL and Time Warner’s megamerger has created a new landscape for the future of communications, television figures to remain a large part of the future. Perhaps we’ll call it by a different name, but the product is sure to remain. As TV continues to evolve in the new digital domain, we will need to monitor programming even more diligently. There will be more channels, and all those channels will be competing even more voraciously for our children’s eyeballs. The new programming that may surface in the coming days is sure to include provoking content designed to lure viewers away from the hundreds of other choices. Raising young people is definitely not going to get any easier, as a multitude of channels, along with new interactive choices will compete for their time.
The Jupiter Communications research group foresees today’s adolescents becoming the most wired segment of the population with 75 percent of teens using online services by the year 2002. That amounts to 12.2 million young people surfing the Web, up from 2.8 million in 1996. In her book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, MIT professor Sherry Turkle points out that the Internet presents a natural universe for teens. “Teenagers use the Internet for what is traditionally called the kind of ‘time out’ or moratorium period of adolescence. It’s the time where behavior is almost consequence free. It’s a time of experimentation, of falling in and out of love, and trying different identities.” Surely, the Web is a wild and wooly universe, and the lure of the independence of that world is often intoxicating for the average teen.
Medical experts agree trends are emerging that evidence addictive behavior to computer technology and the myriad of related gadgetry. The old television term “plugged in” has taken on new meaning, as the teen world increasingly becomes a completely electronic playground and gathering place. Parental knowledge and balance are a must, providing guidelines to help the young navigate our Jetson-like world. The temptation to shrink from technology, new or foreign to us, is something to be resisted.
Instead, use your quest to become a techno-guru as a new way to interact with your young people. Here are a few guidelines for any of us who have been befuddled by the lightning-like speed at which our world has been changing, and the frustrations of keeping up with all the little Elroy and Judy Jetsons we minister to.
Make new media know-how a priority. Don’t be afraid of new technology. Accept that even as an adult, you may be the student. Encourage your young people to teach you about new media and how to use it. They have the time to learn it, as well as fewer inhibitions about technology. The reversal of the teacher-student relationship does not make you less of an influence. Instead, it creates new opportunities for real interaction.
Set rules for use of technology. Once you are familiar with a new technology, it becomes easier for you to set realistic guidelines. Monitor recreational use and educational use, and define the difference to your kids. Make it clear you know how to and will monitor e-mails and Internet visits. There are many helpful sites for parents that will aid you in developing the skills to track usage.
You also need to provide general safety and well-being guidelines. For example, encourage youngsters to never use their real name or address in correspondence to unknown computer contacts. Talk to them about the available content on the Net, both good and bad. Give them strategies for avoiding problems while online. It’s always a good idea to keep the computer with online capability in an area common to the family.
Take a break. Several years ago, I read a book describing author Bill McKibben’s adventure up to Walden’s Pond (The Age of Missing Information). He set out to compare the experience of spending 24 hours in the wilderness to watching 24 hours of cable television, which he had taped during his sojourn. His observations are a credible diary of our society’s reliance on electronic media as daily experience. McKibben’s “breakaway” is a worthwhile adventure to encourage with our young. It doesn’t have to be Walden’s Pond, but a short getaway to a book or a real destination has to be a regular goal.
While it is becoming increasingly obvious the new media offers keys to prosperity in the new millennium, parents and youth workers need to understand that guiding and restricting the use of technology is still our responsibility. The blazing speed of technological advancement has created new educational dynamics unprecedented in human history. Youngsters today often know far more about new media and how to manipulate it than their elders. Many parents and teachers feel left behind on the Information Highway. Young people know it, and it empowers them.
In Alvin Toffler’s popular offering Future Shock, the dominant theme of change is the complex and profound agent that manifests itself on sometimes unsuspecting generations.
We realize the world around us morphs moment to moment by often, unsuspected changes. These shifts continually, and sometimes dramatically, change the landscape in which we, and our children, respond to each other. This is one such time. The Information Highway shows no signs of slowing its expansion, and this is a road where kids can lose direction.
We can embrace these new technologies as further evidence of God’s wonderful and matchless creation. At the same time, we need to add a new measure of vigilance to be able to guide young people to use these amazing tools in a responsible and constructive manner. In many ways, the Web mirrors the lawless, untamed, frontier of the Wild West. In fact, “WWW” could stand for World Wild Web as well as World Wide Web.
But as with any other “world” we have guided our young ones through, let’s get past the shock, jump on our space scooters and lead the jet set to a healthy and happy adulthood.
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For more information on resources to help you understand today=s rapidly changing youth culture, contact the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.