Samara O'Shea

A Fear Worth Fearing?

In the past two days, I’ve read back to back the most disturbing articles I’ve encountered to date concerning kids and their cyber ways. I’ll discuss the first today and the second tomorrow. The first is the cover story in the December issue of Philadelphia magazine called, “Is it Just Us, or are Kids Getting Really Stupid?”

The piece opens with the writer, Sandy Hingston, discovering that her son in high school is not reading any classic literature in English—just watching the movies. That sent my head spinning, but I calmed myself down because I don’t think that’s the norm—at least not yet.

I asked a woman I ride the train with if her son, a high school senior, is reading—you know books—in school. She says yes and he even reads on his own. The leisure books he reads are not Shakespeare or Chaucer, but he likes to read biographies of famed football players. I was relived to hear it because the article suggests that reading—the act itself—is becoming increasingly difficult for young people. How can black words on a white page compete with the cosmic colors and psychedelic graphics of the Internet?

I also take comfort in the lovely existence of my cousin Julia. She graduated from college last spring. She is bright, ambitious, and working as an actress with a small theater company. Naturally, she knows how to text and has 847 friends on Facebook, but she keeps her cell phone far away from the Thanksgiving feast and she can engage anyone in stimulating conversation–on Shakespeare or Chaucer. Whew!

Julia stands in opposition to my cousin Kimi, who is also lovely and notably stylish, but who has a much more difficult time keeping her hands off of her cell phone. She is so subtle about it, too. I didn’t even notice she was texting under the table when her mom came over and insisted she put her phone away. Kimi is a senior in high school.

I understand when one writes an article, generalizations must be made, and sometimes it’s difficult as a reader not to think “Oh my God this is happening to everyone, everywhere!” Granted it must be happening to someone, somewhere otherwise there wouldn’t be an article about it. One of the main points the article makes is, because kids can look up anything at any time, they aren’t bothering to learn basic facts like times tables and how to use a ruler (yes, that’s an actual example).

Emotional Repercussions

Academics aside, the article also zeros in on the emotional imprint of technology on young minds. This change I absolutely believe is taking place, because I see it happening with adults who didn’t grow up with cell phones in their hands. Some good points Hingston makes:

~ “Technology was supposed to set us free, to liberate us from mundane, time-consuming tasks so we could do great things, think great thoughts, solve humanity’s most pressing problems. Instead, our kids have been liberated to perform even more mundane, time-consuming tasks (including the average 3,339 test messages they send and receive each month—or more than a hundred per day)”.

~ “So the tech stuff isn’t benign, though kids think it is. And it’s been deliberately developed to make it hard for them to turn away. ‘The nature of addiction,’ says Chatterjee, ‘is little rewards doled out in unpredictable fashion. The information kids are getting from texting or tweeting has that unpredictable quality. They don’t know what they’re going to get, and what they do get, they really like. It’s a set-up for addictive behavior.’

Learning Curve

The thing about texting, tweeting, and using Facebook is it’s pretty easy to learn. I lived without all of it for twenty-five years and picked it up when I had to. So why do we feel the need to give cell phones to teenagers anyway? Part of it may be wanting to give our kids what they want–not that that’s always bad. And there’s also the safety factor. We want them to be able to call in case of an emergency. How do we strike a balance? Here’s one idea:

My cousin Alicia has three kids under the age of seven. She’s starting to think about what she’ll do when they start begging for cell phones. She decided that she’ll mimic the approach of her neighbor who has three teenagers. He has a “no cell phones in the house” rule. When the kids come in, they have to plug their cell phones into the cell-phone station. The alleviates aimless texting all hours of the day and it ensures that their friends have to call the landline—so the parents have a better idea of who their kids are hanging out with. It also instills the notion into the developing mind that there is a time and a place for cell phone use.

I’ll admit, part of me is nervous about the way this is going, and part of me is completely open minded. Maybe this is the 21-st Century version of losing the oral tradition and gaining the written word. We’ll see . . .

Tomorrow’s article is “As Bullies Go Digital, Parents Play Catch-Up” – in case you’d like to read ahead. Class dismissed!