Rise of the Tech-savvy Parent
Are younger people really digitally superior?
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.