On the days that I drive the middle school carpool, I purposely choose a route that takes us past a huge river. Some mornings, the water looks like glass; others, it reflects the moody clouds above with choppy waves – either way, it’s gorgeous. Every time we drive past it, I point it out to my car full of 12-year-olds: “Look at the water today. Isn’t it beautiful?” No one in the car looks up. They are all looking down at their phones, playing games with each other, texting a friend or watching a YouTube video. Sometimes, if I am lucky, I will get a mercy grunt out of one or two of them in reply.
It struck me recently, after one of my quiet carpool rides, that my generation of parents – we of the soon-to-be or recently 40 year old Gen X variety, the former latchkey children of the Cold War and an MTV that actually played videos, former Atari-owners who were raised by the the Cosby Show and John Hughes, graduated high school with the kids from 90210, then lumbered through our 20s with Rachel, Ross, Chandler, Monica, Phoebe, and Joey and flip phones – is perhaps the last to straddle a life experience both with and without the Internet and all its social media marvels. After all, I didn’t even learn to use e-mail until I was 19 and a sophomore in college in 1993, and only for a slightly cringe-worthy reason: a cute boy at another college asked me to e-mail him.
My generation, it seems, had the last of the truly low-tech childhoods, and now we are among the first of the truly high-tech parents.
My mother, a Baby Boomer, gripes regularly that my friends and I “put everything on The Facebook,” and though she and my grandparents both have accounts, they don’t really use them. My parents still receive a paper newspaper, still read books in hardback, and only relatively recently became comfortable with texting. My children show them how to use their iPhones, and I set up their iTunes accounts for them.
On the flip side, the Internet seems intuitive to my children, who can make PowerPoint presentations as good as any professional, use Google when they are stuck on their math homework, and spend as many hours as I will let them watching YouTube videos of other people playing Minecraft, an activity I just cannot understand no matter how hard I try.
I am very much standing in the middle between my parents and my children when it comes to technology, one foot dipped in the waters of Instagram and Twitter and the other still stuck in the luddite mud of “In my day, we passed paper notes in class, sent real letters to penpals, and talked to each other’s faces!” When it comes to parenting, I find this middle place extremely uncomfortable, because I know what childhood and adolescence were like before the Internet, and my parenting models all came from that era.
So even though I also understand the powerful draw of the World Wide Web and social media and I participate in it enthusiastically, it scares me when it comes to my children and how it will mold and change their experience from mine. Will my children ever have their own awkward but poignant, John Hughes-worthy moments when teenagers today can have entire relationships over text messages? Would the kids in The Breakfast Club even talk to each other if they found themselves in a Saturday morning detention today, or would they spend all their time on their phones, texting their friends and tweeting about how lame it was and never actually make eye contact with one another? Would anyone today even believe that Seinfeld and friends would spend that much time talking to each other out loud about nothing?
I wrestle with demons far less First World Problematic than that of technology with my children, but I must admit that in its category, technology wins the prize for being the trickiest parenting challenge I have faced, right up there with infant sleep and potty training in terms of the feelings of desperation and hopelessness it can inspire at times.
On the one hand, resistance is futile: this is my children’s brave new world, and they need to know and understand all the internet highways and byways to live in it. On the other hand, my children don’t have fully-developed frontal lobes yet. I have spent a lot of time beating myself up for letting them have screens or devices, or for afternoons when I didn’t have it in me to fight the mystifying addiction to Minecraft that all of my children have acquired. The question of managing screen time and who is on what screen and how to protect those in front of the screens from things they might not un-see or un-hear is a constant, exhausting issue that frankly makes me want to go full-on Amish on all of them and throw every last blinking screen away.
But I try to be reasonable, even though I feel like I am parenting in the dark most of the time. So my husband and I set limits and negotiate them. We allow for Minecraft, because someone somewhere said it might be “good for them,” and we debate how old is old enough to have a smartphone. We make the children sit in public places when they are on devices or laptops, we look over shoulders, we check text message histories and set parental controls. We worry about their cyber footprints. We beg them not to send naked pictures of themselves to anyone, for the love of Mike. And, at the end of the day, we pray to the powers of this ridiculous universe – Zuckerberg? Gates? – that our children won’t stumble too hard or fall too far when they inevitably trip into an Internet pothole. We wonder what a high-tech childhood will mean for our little people: will they know how to go on a first date without checking in on Facebook or posting a picture of their food on Instagram? Will it matter?
My children might never understand why I talk about the river on our morning drives, but I have decided to be gentle with myself and with them on this issue – to be okay not knowing exactly how to handle it. The truth is, my generation of parents are pioneers here, like it or not. We’re the last of the Mohicans. We can try as hard as we want to push back and to carve space into our children’s lives for treehouses and puzzles and Waldorf-style dolls, but in the end, our children will grow up with the whole world at their fingertips, courtesy of a touch screen, and they will have to learn how to find the balance between their cyber and real worlds. It is scary. I don’t think I even believe there is a “right way” to parent with technology. But acknowledging that what we are doing is unprecedented – that no study yet knows exactly what this iChildhood will look like when our children are full grown people – feels like an exhale of sorts.
I’ll keep pointing out the view, and I will hope that my children will be encouraged to look up. Maybe someday they will be moved to point it out to their own children too.