Liliana Arroyo holds a PhD in Sociology and is currently a lecturer and researcher at Esade’s Institute for Social Innovation.
The sun is about to set. It is an ordinary evening, a few days before the COVID-19 lockdown. Tina and Mary are patiently waiting on the edge of the cliff, staring at the sea. They got there well in advance, to find the best spot. Tina has been taking pictures the whole way, selfies and landscape photos. Now she is contemplating the sun, considering whether the take would be better captured in time-lapse. Mary opens her bag and takes out some nuts and fresh fruit. She is ready to enjoy the sunset. The last thing she does before the show begins is switch her phone to airplane mode. Both women want to enjoy this timeless moment in silence. Once the sun has dropped behind the sea, Mary packs up the leftovers. Tina checks her video again and again, adding a filter here, tweaking the contrast there. Finally, it’s good to go. She creates a new story on Instagram, uploads the video, tags people, and shares it with all her friends. Guess who is 17 and who is 40.
On their way home, Mary asks her daughter why she chose to experience the moment through a screen. They fall back to arguing about screen time and the constant need to record and share every single moment of the day. Tina responds that she does not record everything, only those special moments she wants to make part of her narrative. Digitally speaking, they feel worlds apart. And to some extent, they are: their digital experience is completely different. What for Mary feels like experiencing the sunset through a screen, for Tina is experiencing it with a screen, as if her phone were an extension of her own hand. It actually has little to do with the screen per se. Where Mary sees a device, Tina experiences the connection with her friends and followers. Every take she makes is carefully prepared, in anticipation of the wave of likes and comments to her story. The difference between the two is that, while Mary was enjoying the uniqueness of the moment with all her senses, Tina was using all her senses to create a memorable and shareable experience. In fact, Tina’s sunset experience does not end once the sun drops out of sight, but with the last like and comment that her story gets 24 hours later. And that changes everything.
This could be the story of thousands of families around the globe. According to the Pew Research Center, 65% of parents in the U.S. claim to be worried about the online life of their teenagers. Parenting in the digital age often seems overwhelming. According to the latest report from the EU Kids Online network, headed by Sonia Livingstone, almost 70% of European children between the ages of 9 and 17 help their parents when they feel lost online. This means parents feel the urgency of developing digital parenting strategies amid their own efforts to understand the complexity of the online world. This is another side effect of disruption, resulting in frustrated and overwhelmed families. Teaching your kid how to cross the street is easy: you can explain how to do it and usually lead by example. In the midst of the digital revolution, experiencing first and teaching later is no longer the norm. But we can still lead by example and cooperate with our kids to discover together. They will learn what to look for and how to communicate with others if they can observe us.
On the other side of the scale, when asked about their perceptions of how their parents are educating them, teenagers consistently complain that adults keep saying they are addicted to their phones without even asking what they are playing or whom they are talking to. While adults tend to view selfies as narcissistic, teens are trying to use them to write their own narrative, which, at the end of the day, is just another way of creating their own identity. Above all, their socialization spans the continuum of the physical and virtual domains. Social media are where they feel connected, where they see and are seen. The MIT Tech Review launched a contest last year, asking teenagers what adults are missing about technology. In the winning essay, Taylor Fang (16, Utah) explained how social media led her to discover creative writing. In addition, she wrote, “Our search for creative self isn’t so different from previous generations’. To grow up with technology, as my generation has, is to constantly question the self, to split into multiplicities, to try to contain our own contradictions.”
These goals – to be and to belong – are teenage desires, but they are also, above all, human needs regardless of age. In the Pew survey, parents themselves claimed to struggle with device distractions. Almost 60% reported feeling obligated to respond to messages immediately, and 40% confessed to having lost focus at work at least sometimes because they were checking their phones.
The new norm of social distancing, with millions of people sheltering in place for the coronavirus lockdown, may be good news for intergenerational empathy. All our fears about how the new generations are missing out on the human touch due to their predominantly online lives can now be debunked, because we have put ourselves in their shoes. Anyone forced to stay home for weeks can see that the experience of social distancing gives rise to a parallel need to embrace others, to breathe in their smell, to capture their non-verbal cues. Today, we are all living with unexpected digital intensity, from working at home to video-calling family members each night. Hopefully, the experience will prompt us to revisit certain prejudices, to go behind the scenes and find the courage to ask teens why they do what they do. Who knows? We may even decide to turn a digital corner together that will change our lives.