I was speaking to a senior teacher at my kids’ school recently (let’s call her Penny, for the sake of this story). We were discussing a grade four school camp that my eldest son attended, and one situation that Penny described (which happened during the school camp) prompted me to consider how making assumptions about kids and digital technology can do them a serious disservice. Such assumptions can also blind us, as older generations, to the connected and creative beings that young people so often are. Below is the story that Penny told me and some of my reflections on how we as humans can develop a positive and proactive relationship with technology.
Penny told me that on a farm visit during the school camp, she and the other teachers noticed a large group of boys sitting down on a log to observe, rather than interacting with the animals. She said that the staff were shocked to see such a big group of kids opt out of an activity, and even appear bored. She also said that this was highly unusual behaviour for 10-year-olds, and something she’d never witnessed in previous cohorts. Penny then went on to make several sweeping assumptions about the situation, saying that ‘today’s kids don’t know how to engage with the natural world. These are city kids and it was sad to see them miss out on an opportunity.’ She added that ‘too much ICT (Information Communication Technology) is doing this to kids’ and that ‘many are spending hours on their iPads before bed, playing Fortnite and watching porn.’
There are elements of truth to what Penny said but her generalisations troubled me on several levels, and at the time I felt like launching straight into a strongly-worded set of counter arguments and questions to challenge her position. How dare you judge children like that! There must be some other explanation! Kids didn’t invent this technology, they inherited it! Did you even ask them why they were sitting down, or did you just jump straight to making assumptions?
Instead of saying any of this though, I calmly offered some potential explanations, while still trying to wrap my own head around the scenario. My main thought was, maybe the boys were tired? They’d had a late night and then spent the whole morning bodyboarding at the beach. But Penny swiftly dismissed this suggestion, saying that the boys ‘shouldn’t have been tired.’
The scenario continued to play on my mind after I’d finished talking to Penny; she hadn’t explicitly said that my son was part of the group but I had guessed that he was. Opting out of an activity didn’t seem like something my son would usually do, so I decided to ask him about it when he got home from school. When I did ask him, my son explained that he had actually been the very first one to sit down because his foot was hurting (he had injured it during the previous bodyboarding activity). Shortly after he sat down, one of his peers came over, asked if he was okay and sat beside him for company. Then, a third boy (who coincidentally, comes from a farming background) joined them. From there, it was a domino effect with more boys coming to sit with them over the next few minutes. A simple act of empathy and mate-ship from one child had snowballed into others following and taking the opportunity to rest. As I said earlier, these kids had spent all morning being highly physically active at the beach after a late first night at camp. They were tired!
I certainly don’t think this warranted a stereotypical judgement that the boys were sitting down because they weren’t interested in engaging with animals and nature or were bored because the activity didn’t involve a screen. Unfortunately, the teachers seem to have misinterpreted the situation, and even missed an opportunity to congratulate the kids on their self-sufficient and empathetic behaviour.
I’m not denying how much our lives have been transformed by the most rapid period of technological development in human history. I am acutely aware of the increased time most of us spend on digital devices, social media and gaming today, even compared to 10-years ago. However, I’m also wary of engaging blindly with dystopian rhetoric. We must continue to think critically about technology and its broader impacts on our societies and cultures, considering multiple human and technological factors that are at play in any given situation.
Demonising the technology and culture that our kids have inherited can’t be useful for their development. Focusing on the negative only serves to ignore the many benefits that technology brings to young people, such as access to information, social connection, community building, and entertainment.
The challenge to us as older generations is to look – and really see – our young people for what they’re creating and learning and who they’re connecting with online. At the same time of course, we need to set clear boundaries and keep them safe online, just as we do offline.
It’s also up to us as humans, to actively work to create the world that we want to live in. To campaign for the best uses of technology to solve health inequalities and allow humans to flourish socially. These are the democratising potentialities of the internet that we’ve been imagining since 1969, but so far haven’t realised.
I’ve just started reading Sarah Wilson’s beautiful book, ‘This One Wild and Precious Life’ and in it she grapples with different philosophies to explain the feeling of disconnect (and discontent) that many humans are feeling today. When addressing the issue of technology and ‘the bloody scrolling’ she says that ‘we tend to blame technology for much of this despair…’ She urges us to instead ask the courageous question, ‘what does technology enable?’ This isn’t about what technology does. It’s about what technology enables and amplifies in human behaviour. Sarah likens this to the argument that guns don’t kill, people do.
If you’d like to hear Sarah Wilson talking about her latest book, you can listen to this brilliant podcast from Dumbo Feather! 👇🏼
Professor Genevieve Bell also references the idea of technology, and AI particularly, as magnifying pre-existing human problems of inequity in her 2017 Boyer Lecture titled ‘Fast, smart and connected: How to build our digital future’.
These voices are some of many that help me to navigate my own thoughts on reconciling our uses of technology with a life well lived. They inspire me to hope and advocate for a world where technology can solve some of our most pressing societal issues. I think one of the biggest keys to enabling this change is for each of us to move from a place of judgement and moral panic to one of accepting the choices of other humans, considering their motivations and fears, and taking control of our own actions and responses.
American actor, Alan Alda is quoted as saying, ‘begin challenging your own assumptions. Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.’
I think this is sage advice for moving forward with hope!