PR hacks email me a lot – I’m a journalist after all. Usually, they’re to inform me of an upcoming product release or kickstarter. But often they’re telling me about surveys. One that dropped in my inbox recently was from British electronics retailer AO.com. Apparently, 85 per cent of British parents have at some point placated their infants with technology, rather than actually deal with them.
I’m generally a bit cynical when it comes to these surveys – especially when they drop in my email uninvited, and are backed by major retailers. Almost all of them are in some way questionable or flawed, or influenced by the interests of the company that funded it.
But this one… I don’t know… It felt believable.
Technology is an important part of our lives. For good or for bad, it’s fundamentally reshaped childhood. But it’s simultaneously reshaped what it means to be a parent. And I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Here’s why.
Technology Preserves The Blunder Years
I was a really awkward kid.
When I was young, I was fanatical about Star Trek (TNG and DS9, obviously) and WCW wrestling. I didn’t have a games console, so I was largely out of the loop when it came to my peers – but I did have an impressively expansive library of books. Most were hand-me-downs from my much older brothers. While my friends were blasting zombies in Resident Evil and bludgeoning police officers in Grand Theft Auto, I was devouring GCSE science books and Fredrick Forsyth novels.
Couple that with an Anakin Skywalker haircut, and you’ve got a recipe for terminal uncoolness. But fortunately, I grew up in an era where Facebook was just a twinkle in Zuckerberg’s eye, and the Internet was just a collection of static HTML pages, decorated liberally with blink and marquee tags.
I was lucky. Nobody was able to document and preserve my blunder years. There’s no footage of me reenacting Rick Flair’s wrestling bouts, or pretending I was captaining the Starship Enterprise.
Today’s kids aren’t as fortunate.
Now, everything is recorded, and often by the parents themselves. Every awkward moment. Every embarrassing fall. Every single preteen #EpicFail moment. It’s recorded, and uploaded, and shared. It’s tweeted about, and the Daily Mail will redigest it.
It might be cute right now, but do you really think the kid from Charlie Bit My Finger wants that video floating around when he hits 15, or 20, or even 30? Do you suppose the kid from David After Dentist wants to be known for looking stoned and asking “is this real life” when he’s in high school?
Do you want your child to be forever known for what they said when they were still developing?
Technology Is The Death Of Childhood Secrets
I had my first kiss when I was 15.
The girl was a year younger than me. She was my first girlfriend. I thought she was cute and she thought I was funny. I feigned an interest in manga purely to get her to like me, buying about £200 books in the process. Our relationship blossomed organically, as we started hanging out more and more often, and talking more and more. This was around 2005, so naturally the majority of our communication happened on MySpace.
It goes without saying that my parents had no idea. I was 15. You don’t talk to your parents at that age. Don’t be ridiculous.
It was an important time in my life, and it all happened organically and naturally, with no pressure. It just… happened.
I think it was like that because it was a total secret, just for us to know. It was our moment, and ours alone, and we were empowered to share it with whoever we wanted. In many ways, I kinda feel lucky my parents didn’t know how to use the Internet properly at that age.
Teenagers should have secrets. Not big secrets. Little secrets. I think it’s good they have their own private lives, and are able to develop and learn on their own terms.
But technology has completely demolished that idea. Now more than ever, it’s easy to see what your child is doing, simply by cyberstalking their Facebook profiles or looking at their phone when it’s left unattended. Parenting in the age of social media has been turned on its head. Is that right? Is that healthy? Is it a good idea to spy on your child? Doesn’t that radically skew the balance of power in the parent-child relationship?
Doesn’t that fundamentally undermine any lessons about trust and honesty?
Blurring The Lines Between Work And Parental Life
I’m currently reading “Postcapitalism : A Guide To Our Future” by Paul Mason – a celebrated British broadcaster, journalist, and economist.
It’s a fascinating hypothesis about what the future holds for us, and how technology has radically reshaped every facet of our lives, from work to leisure. One of the things Mason points out is how technology has made it harder to distinguish between leisure time and work time, and how this trend will continue and become an inexorable facet of our working culture.
I’m sorry, but that’s bloody awful.
It used to be that you’d leave work, and you’d go home, and never the two shall meet. But that’s simply not the case any more. Now we have company Blackberries and laptops. Rather than leave our work at the office, it follows us home like a specter.
How do you think this impacts parents’ relationships with children?
Kids are smarter than people make out. They’re perceptive, and observant. In many ways, they’re essentially adults, but with poorer impulse control and negligible life experience.
They can tell when they’re not the focus of someone’s attention, or when they’re not being fully listened to. It’s not a good feeling. Just ask them.
It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way
Technology has radically reshaped what it means to be a parent. It raises big, bold questions on the nature of trust and relationships. It can be both a curse, and a blessing, simultaneously empowering us to strengthen our relationships with our children, but also undermining them.
How can the parent-child relationship survive in this brave new world?
Same as always. Think before you tweet. Think before you upload that awkward photo, or embarrassing video. Consider whether your son or daughter would want you creeping through their Facebook page. And, of course, never let technology be an impediment to your relationship?
Have you got any kids? Any thoughts on this piece? Think technology is a help or a hindrance as a parent? Let me know in the comments below, and we’ll chat.