Can we resist condemning the younger generation?
I was recently attending an Internet safety conference in Brussels and one of the youth representatives put up his hand and asked the speaker: “You’ve given a lot of advice in your speech about how adults can protect children online. Do you have any advice for young people who want to talk to adults but don’t want to be made to feel stupid?” I was really struck by this raw, unapologetic question in such a public forum. And it isn’t the first time I’ve heard it. When I filmed Inimini (in the video above) she described the judgments often made about her generation (often referred to as “Gen Z”) and the destructive stereotypes that characterize young people as “wasting away online.” In our discussions, both on and off camera, I got the sense that, too often, she has felt belittled by her elders simply by virtue of the fact that she belongs to a generation that has grown up with smart phones and Internet. After all, living in and coming of age with one’s generation, is something we all must do. We don’t have a choice in the matter.
These conversations remind me to resist describing, judging or decoding the behaviour of children and teens solely based on my sketchy understanding of the communication platforms they use (No, I don’t know all the ins and outs of Snapchat).
Thinking about the reaction of Inimini and the young man in the conference (as well as many others to whom I have talked), I’m left with a lot of uneasy questions: do some young people feel stigmatized or even blamed for having grown up with the digital communication tools that their parents have put into their hands? Can we, as adults, have double standards when it comes to our use of the very same technology? And does it really help the quality of our cultural debate when we use broad simplifications to stereotype an entire generation and its interaction with digital communication tools? How do these generational attitudes affect the way we approach children in our own homes or students in our classrooms? Do they help or hinder our ability to communicate and connect with them?
As someone who works on the ground with young people, I’m becoming more and more wary of terminology (e.g. digital natives vs digital immigrants) or apocalyptic arguments (e.g. screens are destroying a generation) that separate us or insist on irreconcilable differences between generational experiences and use of digital communication. It worries me because I think it then becomes more culturally acceptable for a parent or educator to just say: “I don’t understand their technology, therefore I don’t understand my child or my student.” Isn’t that a missed opportunity?
As Inimini says: “We do want to reach out to our older peers but an environment gets created where we feel like we can’t do that.”