Thoughts for a new year (in the digital age)

Reflecting on how we can help our children navigate not just social media but self-actualization in a digital age

By Anne Collier

Why isn’t it good for us to be subjecting ourselves to the constant realtime stream of lightly fact-checked “news,” talking heads, and the social drama of school or work? Not so much because of findings like those reported this week in The Telegraph, after all media (including radio and TV, not just Facebook and cellphones) were taken away from volunteers for 24 hours – findings that are suggestive more than definitive, I think. Or the findings just reported by researchers at Case Western University about correlations between the 19.8% of “hyper-texting” teens (who send more than 120 texts per school day) and risky behaviors, which seem to bear out the important 2008 finding that the kids most at risk online are those most at risk already offline. These findings deserve parents’ and educators’ thoughtful attention, but here’s an even more important answer to that question, especially for those of us growing up and finding our way:

Because, “when you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now … you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in … other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself,” writer William Deresiewicz told students at West Point in 2009. “You are creating [or subjecting yourself to] a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice” as you work out your place in the world, he told them.

“That’s what Emerson meant when he said that ‘he who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from travelling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions’.” That seems dismissive, doesn’t it? But he’s not denigrating other people or social networking, texting, videogaming, etc. and the opportunities they represent. He’s not even dissing “the wisdom of crowds,” I believe (but I’d like to run that by him).

Marinade or moral compass?

Deresiewicz is suggesting, I think, that – if we don’t want to lose ourselves in the crowd or the “cacophony” and if we want to thrive in an increasingly right-and-left-brain-balanced economy, have a strong moral compass, and provide ourselves and others with perspective and direction – we need to step away and take time to think and find the direction and clarity that are exactly right for us – for each individual, not for the crowd and not coming from the crowd. Deresiewicz likes the word “solitude” – not Thoreau-in-the-woods-style reflection so much as the “gathering yourself together into a single point rather than letting yourself be dispersed everywhere into a cloud of electronic and social input.”

This is not friendless solitude. In fact, Deresiewicz calls friendship “a form of solitude…. But I’m talking about one kind of friendship in particular,” he says, “the deep friendship of intimate conversation. Long, uninterrupted talk with one other person. Not Skyping with three people and texting with two others at the same time while you hang out in a friend’s room listening to music and studying [more on multitasking tomorrow]. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that ‘the soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude’.”

Protective as well as promotive

But I’d like to add an additional benefit of solitude (whether you call it that or independent thought, mindfulness, or self-knowledge development): It’s protective as well as promotive in the midst of information and social overload. It’s not only key to leadership – for which Deresiewicz offers an important definition: “finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff” – it’s key to our wellbeing and ability to turn the “cacophony” into community (online and offline), which is protective (see this about the guild effect as an essential part of “online safety” or simply digital-age safety).

Here’s what I mean: Think about what wise cyberbullying- and risk-prevention experts and educators say to kids about being “upstanders,” not just bystanders, when witnessing social victimization, as you read Deresiewicz on the 2009 hazing scandal at the US naval base in Bahrain: Pointing to the “terrible, abusive stuff that involved an entire unit and was orchestrated, allegedly, by the head of the unit, a senior noncommissioned officer,” he asks the cadets, “What are you going to do if you’re confronted with a situation like that going on in your unit? Will you have the courage to do what’s right? Will you even know what the right thing is? It’s easy to read a code of conduct, not so easy to put it into practice…. How will you find the strength and wisdom to challenge an unwise order or question a wrongheaded policy? What will you do the first time you have to write a letter to the mother of a slain soldier? How will you find words of comfort that are more than just empty formulas? These are truly formidable dilemmas, more so than most other people will ever have to face in their lives, let alone when they’re 23.”

Why wait?

How about when they’re 13, or even younger, as they interact with each other in virtual worlds, on Xbox Live, on phones, and in social games on handhelds? Social-media users face equally important – though usually less life-and-death – questions when they’re much younger than 23 in these digital proving grounds as well as playgrounds. They can turn peers’ lives around by stopping mindless pile-ons of social cruelty, learning what true leadership is in the process. The real “online safety” questions are moral ones, because what’s happening online is much more about humanity than technology, and we need to get on with working through those questions together – teens, parents, and educators – in order to put these digital tools to powerfully good use (see this post for what the Harvard School of Education’s Goodplay Project has learned about this).

Deresiewicz told the cadets (while you read this, think: teens in digital media): “The time to start preparing yourself for [these formidable dilemmas] is now. And the way to do it is by thinking through these issues for yourself – morality, mortality, honor – so you will have the strength to deal with them when they arise. Waiting until you have to confront them in practice would be like waiting for your first firefight to learn how to shoot your weapon. Once the situation is upon you, it’s too late. You have to be prepared in advance. You need to know, already, who you are and what you believe … not what your peers believe … but what you believe.”

The parenting issues of the digital age

Ultimately, our kids have to do that work themselves, of course – that will never change. What has changed is the two new kinds of exposure digital media provide us all: the good kind and the bad kind. The latter, of course, is the online risk that Deresiewicz is talking about, getting swamped in the “cacophony” from which we need to help our children carve out some breathing (and thinking) room. The good kind of exposure is what allows us to do that: the unprecedented exposure parents and other caregivers get to their children’s everyday communications and sometimes inner thoughts. As parents “friend” their children in social-media windows on their lives, they have more opportunities than they’ve ever had to see when they’ve had too much of “the drama” and provide them with the breathers, reality checks, balance, and guidance I wrote about in “Parenting & the digital drama overload.”

I’m sure you see by now that this is about much more than teaching our children to control digital-media use so it doesn’t control them (though that’s a vital part of parenting now). And it’s not even only about clearing that all-important space for the solitude and self-discovery Deresiewiscz describes so eloquently. It’s also about the importance of moving past fearing the changes of this digital age which our children do not fear and learning to embrace social media as tools for learning and parent-child understanding so we can support their navigation of the media sea change.

[Many thanks to my friend, fellow parent, and subscriber John in Lincoln, Mass., for emailing me about Deresiewicz’s talk over the holidays.]


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