I’m what you might call a Transitional Millennial (aka an “Old” Millennial). Depending on the definition, I’m either just barely a Millennial or just barely a Gen-Xer. Instant messenger and email became a thing during my high school years, but social media and smartphone use exploded after all the fun I had in college.
Sometimes I feel like a Millennial ambassador to older generations (I lived without computers once too, but all this technology is great! Really!) and sometimes I feel like I’m not a Millennial at all (WTF is doxing?).
Like most adults in my age bracket (and younger), nearly everything I know about smart phones, the internet, social media, and my digital footprint is self-taught. My brother and I sometimes help our parents through the complexities of modern tech—like strong passwords and wireless routers. My mother bought her first smartphone in 2016, and while she enjoys having instant access to the weather, she still refuses to buy anything online.
I imagine parents at the turn of the 20th century had the same hesitation with automobiles. They probably watched their children puttering along in their “horseless buggies”, flabbergasted.
Just imagine, an entire generation taught themselves to drive. The equivalent can be said for Millennials who came of age when everyone was learning to use social media and handheld devices. In most cases, the younger generation taught their parents. No one ever explained to these young adults how posting a keg-stand pic freshman year could hurt their job search after graduation.
Parents today have the opportunity to mentor their children from the start on social media snafus, search engine pitfalls, and technology etiquette. But unlike driving lessons, we have to look to resources beyond our experiences with our own parents.
I’m comfortable with technology and adapt easily to new tools, but my kids—like most kids now—are masters of tech. They have an intuitive understanding of smart phones and touchscreens beyond anything I can muster. But just because they know how to operate technology doesn’t mean they don’t need my help.
In Screenwise: Helping Kids Survive (and Thrive) in Their Digital World, Devorah Heitner, founder of Raising Digital Natives, advocates for digital mentorship. With this approach, parents mentor their children on how to use social media and screen time wisely, rather than just policing their use. “Helping them make good decisions is a better and more effective strategy than trying to protect them from everything that is out there,” Heitner writes.
This concept is a bit hard to swallow for a generation of parents whose children don’t play in the backyard unsupervised. Like most moms I know, I fear a sex offender might be lurking, waiting to pounce if I run inside for two minutes. We all go indoors for mommy’s pee break.
While constant supervision keeps my girls safe today, I understand that I must also teach them about “tricky people”, just in case they ever find themselves alone. Because at some point, whether I like it or not, they have to venture into the world beyond my unblinking eyeballs.
The same can be said for technology. We can monitor what our kids watch, limit the devices they own and how often they use them, but as they mature (and find ever more clever ways around our monitoring), will they be at risk?
A middle school teacher recently told me that each year at least one girl sends a classmate (usually a boy) a naked photograph, which is then distributed widely. Apart from the typical middle-school embarrassment one would expect, these students are sometimes charged with distributing child pornography. Imagine explaining that on a college application.
In many ways, middle schoolers today are no different than we were as kids. Most of the boys are obsessed with boobs. Most of the girls are obsessed with being noticed. But today we have smartphones that can take a picture as well as the internet to instantly compound and immortalize a bad decision.
We can’t be in our tweens’ bedrooms all the time, and we can’t wait until they’re eleven to begin teaching responsible tech use. After all, we’re the first generation of parents to know, firsthand, the perks and pitfalls of technology. It can start small, like teaching little kids that images we post online can be seen by others and shared.
“Can I post this picture of you on Facebook?” I ask my seven-year-old every time I want to share a snap. “Mommy’s friends will see it.”
Usually she agrees. Sometimes she says no or suggests a different picture. Her response dictates what I post and what I don’t. As a parenting blogger, I worry about the impact my writing might have on her digital footprint. I don’t share her image or name publicly—with or without her consent—but in the “private” space of my personal Facebook page, she calls the shots.
Technology isn’t going away any time soon. We can either mentor our kids to take ownership of their digital lives or brace for impact when they venture into the internet beyond our watchful eyes. With some persistence, hopefully our eleven year-olds girls will think twice about sending their boobs through cyberspace, and our eleven year-old boys will think twice before asking.