Closing the Generation Gap, Part 2: How the Mindset has Changed

By May 23, 2017Blog
Generation Gap

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In our last post we talked about some of the most important ways that our world has changed in recent decades. These changes in technology and how they impacted our world are topics that we don’t think about often. Things change gradually even though technology is innovating at such a fast pace, and this gradual change sometimes makes it more difficult to find these differences. Once we point them out, however, it becomes painfully obvious just how different our world is today than it was 20 or 30 years ago.

Arguably more important, though, is the way that these changes in the world have affected the way that younger generations view it. While parenting hasn’t changed much to most people, the things that we have to teach our children have changed quite a bit. If we can’t view the world from their perspective then it makes it increasingly difficult to talk to them intelligibly about the issues that they might face on a regular basis.

Not only should we be talking to them about these new issues, but we also need to be talking to them about these issues in ways that they can actually understand. I don’t mean that we need to “dumb things down,” but instead I mean that we may have to move laterally and talk about these issues in new ways. We need to address these situations in ways that make sense to a child that grew up in the 2000s, not one that grew up in the 1980s.

Willingness to Share Personal Information

“Stranger Danger.” We all remember this catchy phrase that our parents taught us when we were little to make sure that we knew what to do if a stranger approached us. Some of you may even still use this phrase when it comes to teaching your own children how to stay safe. That is because it is important that your children know what to do in this situation. And I think most of us feel confident that if our child was approached by a stranger in person that they wouldn’t give that person any of their personal information and they certainly wouldn’t go anywhere with that person.

Unfortunately, however, this really focuses on the physical aspect of this interaction. Children and teenagers today are very comfortable interacting with strangers online, often times providing their personal information to these strangers without even thinking about it. Is the person I’m talking to around my age? Do they go to a school nearby? Are they interested in my hobbies? Are they attractive? When our kids start talking to someone online and they meet one or more of these criteria, often times they let their guard down.

The issue with this is, as many of you know, that people can appear to be anyone online. Fake profiles take almost no effort to set up, and tricking a child into believing you isn’t too difficult, especially if they want to believe you.

I want to make it clear, though, that not all people that your children meet online are predators. In fact, the majority of people online are regular users of sites and apps just like us, but there is always the potential. Just as in physical interaction, most people who would approach a child have no malicious intent towards the child, however we still teach them to be cautious in these situations.

It is important to translate this message over to the digital world. Just because we meet someone who seems nice, shares our interest, or is someone that we find attractive doesn’t mean that person has our best interests at heart. Communication with strangers online is almost inevitable in this world, so making sure that our children know how to navigate this communication safely is paramount.

The Importance of Social Media

When I talk to parents during my presentations I often ask the same question: “How many of you feel like your life would be greatly, negatively impacted if you could never use any form of social media again starting right now?”

The typical response? Generally less than 25% of the adults in the room raise their hand. Many times this figure is even lower, closer to 10% or so. So what does this mean? It means that social media doesn’t hold the same amount of weight for adults as it does for children and teenagers today.

Imagine a group of teenage girls in the 8th grade. Their primary method of communication is Snapchat. This is how they talk to each other, share pictures, make plans, coordinate outfits, and all of the other stereotypical behavior that 8th grade girls do for the purposes of this thought experiment. Now let’s say that one of these girls does something that she isn’t supposed to do, and her parent’s decide to punish her by taking her smartphone away from her for two weeks.

Now, during these two weeks, her friends don’t stop liking her. They don’t stop wanting to be her friend, wanting to talk to her, wanting to make plans with her, or wanting to include her in their lives, but there is a problem. The social media network that they use to communicate is more than a method of communication. It is, unfortunately for this girl, the infrastructure of their relationship.

Because she cannot communicate with her friends through any of their traditional means, she will experience some level of social isolation, which will cause her a certain level of discomfort or distress. This is probably what you were hoping for when you gave her the punishment in the first place.

It is, however, important to remember that taking this device away probably has a larger impact on her than you understand, because remember, most adults say this wouldn’t even impact them. What is important to do in this situation is to put yourself in your child’s shoes. By exercising empathy we can better understand how technology and social media factor into their lives.

The Role of Online Dating

While this topic might seem a little out of place, trust me, it will make sense.

20 years ago, online dating was largely seen as a fringe activity. People who were engaged in online dating at that time certainly faced stigma, however things have changed in the last 20 years. Online dating has become a mainstream activity, with everyone from college students to senior citizens getting in on the action. So how does this tie into teaching our kids about internet safety?

In 1997 I was 9 years old, and when my dad taught me about being safe online the conversation went something like this:

“If you meet a stranger online, and then you meet up with them in real life, you will die.”

It sounds funny now, but that is truly the mindset that we had when it came to meeting strangers from the internet. Now we call strangers to come pick us up from our house in their car and take us places. Times have certainly changed, and that conversation needs to change as well.

Our children see situations every day where people meet strangers from the internet and nothing bad happens to them. If we continue to approach these conversations in that “black and white” approach then we will lose credibility with them when they can point out concrete examples where what we said did not happen.

Instead, we need to approach these conversations like we would we when talk to our children about driving a car and drinking alcohol: at some point this activity might be safe for you to do, but right now it is not. Taking the time to explain the reasons why something might not be safe and that you have their best interests at heart goes a lot further than just laying out arbitrary rules.

Sexting and Inappropriate Messages

When we think of all of the things our children could do with technology that frighten us, the idea of sending nude pictures or inappropriate messages strikes a lot of parents as the worst. There is good reason for that, which is that these images and conversations can become both public and permanent, and there isn’t a lot that the original sender can do about it.

But has the technology turned our children in deviants? Is it because smartphones exists that our teenagers want to send these messages or pictures? I don’t think so.

Think back to when you were in middle or high school and realize that a lot was going on during these years. Besides school, extracurricular activities, and family most of us were also dealing with hormones, first kisses, and dating. These are all normal things that teenagers think about during these formative years, and technology hasn’t changed that.

What technology has changed, however, is the ability to act on that impulse. A process that would have involved a disposable camera, a trip to the drug store, a week-long wait for development, and a third party having access to the pictures was simply out of the question. Our children live in a world where they can take and send a picture almost instantly with no one involved in the process except the sender and the recipient.

This revolution in technology might seem like it is the enemy, but consider how many positive changes in the world this quality of communication has brought about. We are able to keep up with friends and family all over the world, business leaders can interact without boarding planes and flying to another country, and we can turn work into our boss without having to go into the office! The technology has added tremendously to our lives, but there will always be a little bad with the good.

It is important to remember that our children will have access to this technology whether we like it or not. Even if you don’t give them a smartphone, they’ll be around other children who do have one or they’ll find other means to accomplish the same actions.

We need to focus on talking to our children about the behavior itself, the consequences of those actions, and how we can prevent them from getting themselves into a troublesome, and potentially dangerous, situation. Remember, the action is the issue, not the technology. If we treat technology as if it is the problem we will only reinforce the idea that our children are not responsible for their actions, and that “technology made them do it,” which is an idea we need to banish.

Fear of Missing Out

You may have heard of Fear of Missing Out, or FOMO as it is sometimes seen, but you may not understand exactly what it means. As with a lot of the trends in the generations that follow our own, we sometimes have a hard time wrapping our heads around how theirs work.

Fear of Missing Out is, quite literally, that: being afraid that they will not share an experience with other people within their social circle. We have all experienced something similar to this, though we may not have used a catchy acronym to describe it. The difference between this experience for us and this experience for our children is that it is a much more common experience for them.

Think about all of the adults that you know that are important to you: your family, friends, community, etc. Now try to think about an experience that you all shared. It’s pretty tough to find some event that everyone that is important to you experienced. My go-to example is the Super Bowl.

Regardless of whether you like football, you probably experience the Super Bowl in some way. Perhaps you watch it for the game. Maybe you watch it for the commercials. Some people watch it just so they can see the halftime show while other may just show up to your place to eat food while the TV is on in the background. It doesn’t really matter the reason, but most adults share in this experience each year.

So imagine that you show up to work on the day after the Super Bowl. You enter the office and everyone is talking about it. They’re discussing the game-winning field goal, their favorite commercial, the fact that they ate too much, or some other aspect of what happened last night. Let’s say, though, that you missed it. Let’s say you were sick. So when someone asks you about the Super Bowl, you don’t have anything to contribute. They listen to your sad sick story for a few seconds, and then they move on to talk to someone who shared in their experience.

This is social isolation, and you are experiencing it because you did not share an experience with the other people in your social circle. For us, this happens a few times a year at most, but for our children, this is an everyday occurrence.

Their smartphones and computers gives them the ability to know everything about everything as soon as it happens, and if they don’t they may just have this same bad day that you did.

Understand, however, that it is OK to miss out on experiences to have other experiences. Our lives are defined by the things that we go through that other people do not. Your children do not need to be connected 24/7, but it is important to at least understand that they are under pressure to remain informed and connected to their social network.

We should talk to them about the importance of creating space, and reinforce the idea that they do not have to be connected all the time, but we also need to show patience and understanding that, to them, their social circle is the world. They don’t care too much about politics, world events, or any other boring adult stuff. Their world is largely made up of what their friends are experiencing and their ability to share in those moments.

Hopefully you’ve gotten a glimpse into the mind of your child! Feel free to comment below and let us know what you think!

Author Joe Ryan

Joe Ryan is the Education Coordinator with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force at the South Carolina Attorney General's Office. Since 2015 he has engaged over 60,000 students, parents, and professionals to educate them about staying safe online. It is Joe's mission to educate, impact, and connect with South Carolina residents to prevent these crimes from happening through proactive efforts.

More posts by Joe Ryan

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