By Polly McKinney, Advocacy Director 
A few months ago, I was hanging out in my 14 year old daughter’s extremely eclectic and extremely decorated room.   We had a brief but fascinating conversation which has dogged me ever since.  It went something like this:
Her:     “Mom, what is my age group called?”
Me:      “Teenagers.”
Her:     “No, I mean what are we called? You know – Like Baby Boomers or Gen-X or Gen-Y?”
Me:      “Gosh, sweetie, I think that those terms don’t usually come until your generation is in their 20’s or something.  And usually, the nickname is made up either by some super-hip lifestyle magazine editor or by someone on Madison Avenue trying to sell soft drinks, fitness plans or cars.”
Her:     “Why do they get to decide what we are?”
Me:      “They don’t actually tell you guys what to be.  They just generalize based on an age group.”
Her:     “But they don’t know us.  I hate being judged – especially by people I don’t know. (In fact, she’s not so thrilled about being judged by people she does know and especially those she is related to…) We need to make up our own name, and do it now so we can grow into something cool. “
I love it when kids see no barriers to changing the world, so we started trying to define particular characteristics of her age group.  It was tough.  Nothing seemed to be able to blanket the entire tween/teen group that wasn’t mamby-pamby or too condemning to wear as an adult.  How could her generation compete with the names the rest of us had?  Seemingly, the 2 best letters (X and Y) had been taken and Z was a terrible letter because it implied the end of something, like humanity.  Baby Boomers had that great alliteration, but another alliterative nickname would be too cutesy and not “original” feeling.  We went round and round.
I was about to tell her that it was midnight and that this was a challenge best slept and showered upon, but then her 11 year old brother walked in.  They ganged up on me and begged to try just a little longer.  Of course, she was determined to find closure on this, The World’s Most Pressing Problem, and he was game simply because it meant not having to go to bed.
Her:     “I bet if we Googled some stuff we could find something.”
Me:      “Okay.  You two search on the ipad and the iphone. I’ll search on the imac. “
Him:    “Man, if I had Google glass, I wouldn’t have to even touch the buttons.  I could do it with my eye.”
Her:     “I hear that they are making cameras in contact lenses.  How cool is that?”
Him:    “I want Google Glass for Christmas.”
Me:      “Of course you do….”
Her:     “Wait, Sarah just Skyped me…”
And that is when it all came into focus:  My kids’ generation is the “i-gen.”  Their world is being geared to comprehend, create, collect, and in many ways, survive immediately and intuitively through the internet.  They are the ones who have known the concept of “virtual everything” since birth.
They are the ones who have never had to look in a card catalogue drawer, pull out the volume “K” of the Encyclopedia Brittanica or find a pay phone for anything other than a Dr. Who costume.  They have never had wait to get the prints back from the photography place, never had to open an atlas to see where something was, or wait for a plane ticket to arrive by mail.  They think that I am crazy for insisting that they actually answer the phone when I call rather than text, and they think that the reason I get a paper newspaper is so that we can have the plastic bags for dog poop.
Much of the virtual stuff is easy and fast.  Less stuff to carry round, hardly any patience to figure something out, and who doesn’t love sharing a photo of every thing you eat?
But it is not just about convenience, fun and speed.  It is about improving and enhancing supports for kids and families.  We have virtual education and training systems, virtual health systems, virtual psychological counseling and virtual communications.  In addition, we have nearly instantaneous collection and analysis of a breadth of helpful data. This information can and will allow us to know where services and human engagements work and where they do not.  By looking at current and past trends, predictive analytics can help keep kids out of jail, prevent child abuse, and show kids and families what they need to be healthier and happier.  And our i-gen kids are growing up in a country where this is the expected paradigm.
But wait – immediate, intuitive everything is a double-edged sword.  That same paradigm shift that allows families and kids access to all sorts of good things is the same technological world that allows sexting, internet grooming of kids by pedophiles, identity theft, and babies who struggle to develop gross motor skills because they play with smart phones instead of building blocks.  Plus, if you are a parent, keeping even the most elementary tabs on your kids’ internet histories and social media can be a 24/7, anxiety-laden chore.
Is the trade off worth it?  I believe it is.  As with all new paradigms (and shoes), these things take a little getting used to.  Good protocols for social media and data use are emerging, as are refined virtual tools for child and family supports.  I like to think that the same minds that brought us things like ways to find lost relatives, phones we can ask for directions, and the real time, videophone chance to say “quit hitting your sister” to your Atlanta kids from Central Asia, are the same minds that want to preserve our species.
So my suggestions are these:

  • Remember that technology is a tool to find an answer, not the answer itself.  E.g. virtual diagnosis does not mean that a child does not need to see a doctor.
  • Be vigilant without being a sleepless conspiracy theorist
  • Be moderately patient (but still vigilant – see bullet point #2) as the technological and practical kinks get worked out; and
  • Above all, talk to your kids about what is and is not okay.   Safety rules should not change just because something is on a screen and not in person.  “Never take [FILL IN THE BLANK] from strangers” pretty much works no matter how you cut it.

The world whips around at 1070 miles per hour. Information moves across the globe way, way faster – as fast as the tap of a fingertip.  It is not going to slow down, and it is not going to go backwards, so for those of us who are not i-gen, put your seatbelts on and enjoy the ride.

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