Maybe the Kids Aren’t Alright

Consider the following statements regarding the place of digital media in the lives of a cohort of thirteen-year-olds:

“One teenager, Fesse, was usually late – partly because he played Xbox till late into the night ….”

“We witnessed a fair number of struggles to make the technology work, or sometimes to engage pupils with digital media in the classroom.”

“Homework was often accompanied by Facebook, partly as a distraction and partly for summoning help from friends. Some became quickly absorbed in computer games.”

“Adam [played] with people from the online multi-player game in which he could adopt an identity he felt was truly himself.”

“Megan worked on creating her private online space in Tumblr – hours passing by unnoticed.”

“Each found themselves drawn, to varying degrees, into their parents’ efforts to gather as a family, at supper, through shared hobbies, looking after pets, or simply chatting in front of the television – albeit each with phones or tablets at the ready – before peeling off in separate directions.”

“Digital devices and the uses they put them to have become teenagers’ way of asserting their agency – a shield from bossy parents or annoying younger siblings or seemingly critical teachers, a means to connect with sympathetic friends or catching up with ongoing peer ‘drama.'”

Okay, now what would be your initial thoughts about the state of affairs described by these statements? Generally speaking, presented with these observations about the lives of 13-year-olds, I’d think that we might be forgiven a bit of concern. Sure, some of this describes the generally recognizable behavior of “teenagers” writ large, and nothing here suggested life-or-death matters, necessarily, but, nonetheless, it seemed to me that we might wish things were a touch different in some respects. At least, we might want a little more information about how these factors play out over the long run.

But the author framed these statements with these sorts of interpretative comments:

“… the more we know about teenagers’ lives the clearer it becomes that young people are no more interested in being constantly plugged in than are the adults around them.”

“As adults and parents, we might spend less time worrying about what they get up to as teenagers and more time with them, discussing the challenges that lie ahead for them as adults in an increasingly connected world.”

Couple that with the opening paragraph, which begins thus: “With each generation the public consciousness conjures up a new fear for our youth ….” There is no quicker way to signal that you are not at all concerned about something than by leading with “each generation, blah, blah, blah.”

When I first read this piece, I felt a certain dissonance, and I couldn’t quite figure out its source. After thinking about it a bit more, I realized that the dissonance arose from the incongruity between the cheery, “the kids are alright” tone of the article and what the article actually reported.

(I might add that part of my unease also regards methodology. Why would we think that the students were any more transparent with this adult researcher in their midst than they were with the teachers whose halting attempts to connect with them via digital media they hold in apparent contempt? Mind you, this may very well be addressed in a perfectly adequate manner by the author in the book that this article introduces.)

Let me be clear, I’m not calling for what is conventionally and dismissively referred to as a “moral panic.” But I don’t think our only options are “everything is going to hell” and “we live in a digital paradise, quit complaining.” And what is reported in this article suggests to me that we should not be altogether unconcerned about how digital media floods every aspect of our lives and the lives of our children.

To the author’s point that “the more we know about teenagers’ lives the clearer it becomes that young people are no more interested in being constantly plugged in than are the adults around them,” I reply, that’s a damnably low bar and, thus, little comfort.

And when the author preaches “As adults and parents, we might spend less time worrying about what they get up to as teenagers and more time with them, discussing the challenges that lie ahead for them as adults in an increasingly connected world,” I reply, that’s exactly what many adults and parents are trying to do but many of them feel as if they are fighting a losing battle against the very thing you don’t want them to worry about.

One last thought: we are deeply invested in the comforting notion that “the kids are alright,” aren’t we? I’m not saying they are not or that they will not be alright, necessarily. I’m just not sure. Maybe some will and some won’t. Some of the very stories linked by the website to the article in question suggest that there are at least some troubling dimensions to the place of digital media in the lives of teens. I’ve spent the better part of the last fifteen years teaching teens in multiple contexts. In my experience, with a much larger data set mind you, there are indeed reasons to be hopeful, but there are also reasons to be concerned. But never mind that, we really want to believe that they will be just fine regardless.

That desire to believe the “kids are alright” couples all too well with the desire to hold our technology innocent of all wrong. My technological habits are no different, may be they’re worse, so if the kids are alright then so am I. Perhaps the deeper desire underlying these tendencies is the desire to hold ourselves blameless and deflect responsibility for our own actions. If the “kids are alright” no matter what we do or how badly we screw up, then I’ve got nothing to worry about as an adult and a parent. And if the technologies that I’ve allowed to colonize my life and theirs are never, ever to blame, then I can indulge in them to my heart’s content without so much as a twinge of compunction. I get a pass either way, and who doesn’t want that? But maybe the kids are not altogether alright, and maybe it is not altogether their fault but ours.

Finally, one last thought occurred to me. Do we even know what it would mean to be alright anymore? Sometimes I think all we’re aiming at is something like a never-ending and exhausting management of perpetual chaos. Maybe we’ve forgotten how our lives might be alternatively ordered. Maybe our social and cultural context inhibits us from pursuing a better ordered life. Perhaps out of resignation, perhaps for lack of imagination, perhaps because we lack the will, we dare not ask what might be the root causes of our disorders. If we did, we might find that some cherished and unquestioned value, like our own obsession with unbridled individual autonomy, might be complicit. Easier to go on telling ourselves that everything will be alright.

6 thoughts on “Maybe the Kids Aren’t Alright

  1. Maybe we (as a species) aren’t evolved (yet) to deal with the attention demands that multimedia technologies like the current Web, Mobile, etc… place on us.

    “Sure I can!” the retort claims … as that same person dives headlong back into their phone. Then, that person tries to have conversations with their kid about this stuff.

    “Look at me! I’m taking a sabbatical!” comes another retort, so that this person can get the 15 minutes of easy “fame” this technology provides … the same technology they are trying to avoid “logging onto.”

    etc…

    I don’t think we know if “the kids are alright” or not … because we don’t know the full parameters of that line of thought. We like to think that we do (in our hubris), and we certainly try hard to create boundaries etc…

    I just think we’re trying to create a map of a territory we have almost no clue about (yet, and maybe never).

  2. Thanks for this nice piece. Being alright has never been easy. Now it’s technological developments that ask for rapid adaption. That adaption can be seen in new pegagogical arrangements, like limiting time behind screens or sleeping without smartphone. Aside from things like war, poverty or illness, I think overprotection is a bigger threat to childrens welfare than overconnecteness, specially when it is supported by smart devices.

  3. There’s a nice moment Astra Taylor’s “The People’s Platform” where she unpacks the myths of “digital natives” and suggests that they’re as conflicted and uneasy about the ways technologies are implemented as everyone else.

    There are good reasons to defend young people as a class against the prejudices of older folks-indeed they do continue to be denied basic rights and autonomy in many spheres. But attention should be paid to make sure we’re not just lazily projecting our fears, desires, defenses about ourselves onto them.

  4. As someone who grew up at the onset of the Internet becoming prominent, my relation to it is one ridden with ambiguity. My memories are of a different time period then the one which is in place now, as the Internet was a sort of wild west. Its was easy, especially coming from a small insular town, to be drawn to it as a place of wonder and knowledge and access to experiences beyond one self. I think that’s a feature we can forget about in these conversations, that for good or for ill the kids are finding something out there that they require as adolescents.

    (Whether now it is a source of wonder given how the Internet has become more gated is an interesting question. More so that our experience of it is now steered towards our own biases and assumptions. Moreover whether that thing they require should be delivered and decided by companies is something else that should be troubling.)

    In my later years and in my study of philosophy I came to question this relationship and indeed my relationship with technology in general. There was a good degree of compulsion about my usage. More then that, I came to realise that certain things really did not benefit myself and took some time and effort in order to dislodge them. Internet usage is an ingrained habit for myself, but one I am working on.

    Still, if I look back, although the unbridled freedom of the Internet and the degree of connectivity had its dangers, for better or for worse it shaped me. I suspect that the task for a generation who are growing up with these technologies is to own that fact – to not allow its implicitness in our lives to dictate who we are. I don’t pretend to know how to do that. I suspect we spend our whole lives trying to figure it out.

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