Rise of the Tech-savvy Par­ent

Are younger peo­ple re­ally dig­i­tally su­pe­rior?

The Walrus - - CON­TENTS - by An­gela Misri

Rise of the Tech-savvy Par­ent Is the younger gen­er­a­tion re­ally dig­i­tally su­pe­rior?

Ican see how it would be un­set­tling to be laugh­ing with your friends, far from the eyes and in­ter­rup­tions of the adult world, when sud­denly your mother takes over your com­puter screen and de­mands that you call her. What is it like to be a teenager whose mom re­motely turns off your tech­nol­ogy when you refuse to an­swer your phone, text, email, and Face­time? I’m the per­son who fixes my teen’s smart­phone when they can’t fig­ure out why their apps have dis­ap­peared. I’m the per­son who set up a Tum­blr for them to up­load the stop-mo­tion videos I also taught them how to make. And I’m the one they will come to when their first job re­quires them to learn the lat­est soft­ware. It’s a com­mon cliché: if you need to fig­ure out a new gadget, you hand it to the youngest mem­ber of the fam­ily. The me­dia has been publishing ar­ti­cles about adults’ ap­par­ent tech ig­no­rance for nearly two decades. In 2000, The Econ­o­mist claimed the “fam­ily tech guru” was “far more likely to be a teenager than the fa­ther of the house.” Per­haps they should have checked with the mother, be­cause that sce­nario has never been true in my home, where I live with my hus­band and six­teen-year-old kid. I’m con­vinced that I’m not the only nerdy par­ent out there who knows more about (and is ac­tu­ally more in­ter­ested in) tech­nol­ogy than my child does. (A few years ago, I bought my kid a Rasp­berry Pi as a cool en­try into build­ing a com­puter. My kid didn’t find the soft­ware as ex­cit­ing as I did, and I ended up hav­ing to pro­gram it my­self.) In fact, I don’t think my kid’s lack of tech savvy is at all unique among the younger crowd.

It wasn’t al­ways this way. Like many kids grow­ing up in the 1980s, I knew more about tech­nol­ogy than my par­ents and would, with a con­de­scend­ing sigh, re­li­ably ful­fill my role as the house­hold’s tech ge­nius. Start­ing at age seven, I set up the VCR to record my mother’s favourite soap, Days of Our Lives, and by age twelve, I was the one who du­ti­fully pro­grammed the big, boxy an­swer­ing ma­chine. I re­mem­ber my mom’s prom­ise in the face of my tech­no­log­i­cal su­pe­ri­or­ity: some­day, she told me, my child would sup­plant me the same way. That may have been a de­fence mech­a­nism on her part, or it may have been what she ac­tu­ally be­lieved, but the day I started pro­gram­ming in DOS is the day my child—still four­teen years from be­ing born—started to lose foot­ing in my mom’s prophecy. The idea of gen­er­a­tional supremacy over tech­nol­ogy as­sumed that the gen­er­a­tion born in the mid- to late nineties (some­times called Gen­er­a­tion Z, some­times post­mil­len­ni­als) grew up with the in­ter­net, cell phones, and a lap­top for ev­ery lap and is, there­fore, “in­tu­itive” about new tech­nol­ogy. This gen­er­a­tion is, pre­sum­ably, in­tu­itive in a way that I, as a mem­ber of Gen­er­a­tion X, can­not be. But plenty of re­search con­tra­dicts the idea that young peo­ple are, as a whole, more dig­i­tally con­nected than we olds are. Roughly the same num­ber of us are plugged into the in­ter­net, the sup­posed do­main of mil­len­ni­als. Ac­cord­ing to are­cent study from the Pew Re­search Cen­ter, for ex­am­ple, 97 per­cent of mil­len­ni­als use the in­ter­net; so do 96 per­cent of Gen Xers. Even when it comes to be­ing con­nected on our smart­phones, there isn’t a dras­tic dif­fer­ence in use. We’re nearly as con­nected as the “dig­i­tal na­tives.” As a mother of a teenager and as some­one who teaches first-year jour­nal­ism to post­mil­lenials, I can also tell you

that my gen­er­a­tion (the one that, to in­ter­act with tech­nol­ogy, learned pro­gram­ming grow­ing up) is dis­tinct from today’s gen­er­a­tion (the one that doesn’t need to). Like many of my peers born in the seven­ties, I learned how to pro­gram be­fore web­site tem­plates ex­isted. But not even the less tech savvy of my co­hort ex­pected tech­nol­ogy to do the work for us. Back then, con­tent-man­age­ment sys­tems, such as Word­press or Squares­pace, didn’t ex­ist. In the ab­sence of all this, I learned how to do things my­self. It’s true that an­cient tech­nolo­gies — like the ro­tary phone and the cas­sette recorder —pass out of knowl­edge for a rea­son: we don’t need them any­more. But I do won­der what else we lose when we stop be­ing cu­ri­ous about how things work.

Other than grow­ing their so­cial-me­dia fol­low­ing by check­ing to make sure their In­sta­gram pics get the cor­rect num­ber of likes ev­ery morn­ing, what are the kids build­ing th­ese days? What is the un­know­able ques­tion they are try­ing to an­swer? All our sup­posed tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ment seems to have re­moved two key traits of tech­nol­ogy users: pa­tience and cu­rios­ity. In many ways, th­ese are prob­a­bly the same trait. It takes time to work things out, to un­der­stand the struc­ture be­hind a tech­nol­ogy, and it takes cu­rios­ity to get lost in that chase. If you’re con­stantly look­ing for some­one else to solve a glitch (an­other app, dif­fer­ent soft­ware, or your mom)—and, worse, you’re find­ing it—then you lose the crit­i­cal think­ing that goes into solv­ing the prob­lem. I’ve spent much of my time as a teacher, both in and out of class, trou­bleshoot­ing sim­ple tech­no­log­i­cal fixes. Some of th­ese chal­lenges rest in poor crit­i­cal think­ing and some can be traced to a ba­sic lack of un­der­stand­ing of how the in­ter­net and com­put­ers work. Ask a ran­dom teenager how they would put a video on the in­ter­net with­out Youtube or In­sta­gram or Vevo and you’ll likely get a look of con­fu­sion. They may even ex­press de­ri­sion at the idea that they should at least be cu­ri­ous about how to do it. Not only are today’s young peo­ple often ig­no­rant about the in­ner work­ings of com­put­ers and the in­ter­net, many lack even the skills that go along with us­ing this tech­nol­ogy. I’m not the first to no­tice that the pre­dicted su­pe­ri­or­ity of the younger gen­er­a­tion is far from our present re­al­ity. In 2017, the jour­nal Teach­ing and Teacher Ed­u­ca­tion pub­lished a pa­per called “The myths of the dig­i­tal na­tive and the mul­ti­tasker,” in which the au­thors con­clude that dig­i­tal na­tives do not ex­ist. The year be­fore, a study by the ecdl Foun­da­tion, an in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion “ded­i­cated to rais­ing dig­i­tal com­pe­tence stan­dards in the work­force, ed­u­ca­tion and so­ci­ety” con­cluded that a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of all age groups, in­clud­ing the gen­er­a­tion that grew up with com­put­ers, lacks ba­sic com­puter skills. More alarm­ing, a 2013 study that as­sessed the com­puterand in­for­ma­tion-lit­er­acy skills of 60,000 eighth graders from twen­ty­one ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems around the world found that in On­tario, one of the best-per­form­ing regions, only 5 per­cent of stu­dents ranked at the high­est level, which re­quired us­ing crit­i­cal think­ing while search­ing for in­for­ma­tion on­line. Peo­ple like me, who built web­sites back when <blink> tags were still a thing, have an in­stinct for how pro­gram­ming lan­guage works and, more im­por­tantly, how the per­son who codes them thinks. If Gen Z seems to have the in­stincts, it’s be­cause we’re the ones lit­er­ally build­ing apps for them. Us­ing apps is not in­stinct. It’s a learned habit. In its study’s con­clu­sion, the ecdl Foun­da­tion called for more dig­i­tal-lit­er­acy ed­u­ca­tion in our school sys­tems. I couldn’t agree more. We can­not as­sume that just be­cause today’s kids and teens were born in an era when ev­ery­one can be fa­mous on the in­ter­net, they un­der­stand the ram­i­fi­ca­tions and power of the ma­chines. We can­not as­sume they know how to use them or to cre­ate new ones. Which takes us back to the be­gin­ning: if you don’t pick up your phone and it’s your mom call­ing, get ready for a tech­nol­ogy takeover—be­cause you might have grown up with it, but it an­swers to your mom.

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