Yesterday I had the pleasure of seeing a talk by Dr. Devorah Heitner, the author of Screenwise and site Raising Digital Natives. Dr. Heitner has the unusual disposition that she doesn’t believe digital technology and social media will lead our species into an apocalyptic downfall. Nor does she jump on the technophile bandwagon so often heard among from the futurists who proselytize a future where technology solves everything.
Dr. Heitner speaks to parents who feel digital technology has taken off more instantaneously than a toddler’s gag reflex after tasting broccoli the first time. With her no-nonsense, middle-of-the-ground approach to digital citizenship, she advocates mentoring over monitoring. You can’t necessarily control everything that comes in on your kids’ screens, but you can help them process it. Her advice is consistent with other studies on the topic. Says Haiyan Jia: “With online technologies becoming more ubiquitous and a greater part of teens’ social and educational lives, abstinence may actually be less reliable and more harmful.” In parts of my tech-friendly futurist circles there seems to be an almost bottomless belief that technology changes everything and that younger generations don’t care about things like privacy etc. Evidence doesn’t support this. Young people may share more in social media, but it is very often filtered and curated for the intended audiences – audiences that are getting smaller and smaller because teens adjust their content to the format and prune their profiles. And as per danah boyd, they hide in plain sight. The rise of ephemeral, one-to-one platforms such as Snapchat mirrors generation Z’s need to be private and “erasable”. Talk to a 17-year-old about his mother’s Facebook behavior and he will say she is the oversharer, no he! But then again, it’s easier to know the implicit rules if you are native. And when it comes to digital technology, a 17-year-old is. His mom is not.
Since this topic so often gets stuck in the chasm between the technophiles and the luddites, we end up missing useful and coherent social media guidelines that could influence social media platforms’ policies. Such as when You Tube’s association algorithms lacks filters that would prevent cute panda videos from cueing footage of ISIS beheadings. Instead the Google-owned company carries out a knee-jerk demonetization policy which in effect limits the creative freedom of professional youtubers. Or Facebook, whose nudity policy removes imagery of breastfeeding mothers and even Nick Ut’s famous ‘Napalm Girl’.
What will be the parenting guidelines when our digitally native children become parents? ‘No holographic projections of your virtual boyfriend at the dinner table, please’. We can only speculate. As parents we are pioneering new territory. We are going to make mistakes. We are going to regret letting Aunt Berta upload that ‘funny’ picture when our toddler decided to empty their bowels in the tub, with Hershey kisses floating around between rubber duckies and tubwall-alphabets. I can promise you that our grandchildren’s children’s online identities will not be shaped by events like that. But we’re in for an interesting journey.