Bridging the Digital Cultural Gap

This is the most difficult time in human history to be a parent.  You parents reading this know it’s true, instinctively, even if a sense of humility or respect for previous generations has prevented you from openly acknowledging it before now.  But let’s acknowledge it.  The world has changed.  People can and do argue over what changes have been for the better and what for the worse, but no one can make a valid claim that things haven’t gotten more complex.

For the first time in human history, adults cannot control the flow of information to children.  Parents, teachers, clergy, coaches; we used to be the only source of credible, reliable information about the world.  Now, all of a sudden, our kids can bypass us.  In fact, they often have more information than we do, especially in their areas of interest.

Parents have always lived in slightly different cultures than their children.  It’s a cliché: the parents that just don’t understand their kids’ music or slang or fashion.  But now, the rate of change is faster than ever, and it includes changes not just in taste, but in skill.  Every new piece of technology, every new app, requires a new set of skills to navigate.  And our kids often learn these new skills faster than we do.  The gap between the parents’ culture and the child’s is wider than ever, and the further we drift apart, the greater the potential for conflict.

It’s only complicated by the fact that our society in general can’t keep up.  New technologies are disseminated and improved upon before we can come to any kind of consensus on how to use them appropriately.  How much time is too much time to spend on the computer?  Do I have a right to an expectation of privacy on my personal devices (even if I’m a child)?  Does facebook messaging an ex at 4 in the morning count as infidelity?  Reasonable people can disagree on these and many, many more questions because we have no established traditions, no shared history to rely upon for guidance.

We assume that our answers to these questions are shared by those closest to us, especially our children.  And because of that, we don’t actually discuss these issues until we are proven wrong in that assumption.  If I believe that spending time with friends online is not as valid as spending time with friends in real life, but my child disagrees, that cultural difference usually won’t come to light until I’m already exasperated trying to get her to spend less time online and she is telling me that would ruin her life.  How many of us have been surprised at the vehemence of the argument that comes out of what we assumed was a very reasonable suggestion?  This is why.  We don’t always know what we’re walking into.

I encourage families to change that.  Let’s be deliberate about learning each other’s culture before our ignorance causes problems.  It’s what we would do if we were close with someone raised in a different country, why don’t we it for those raised in a different time?

This is not to say that adults’ and children’s opinions always hold equal weight.  It’s simply that discussing differences before they result in conflict gives us our best chance at reconciling or accommodating our disparate views.  If we want peace in our families, we need to start with understanding.