The Care & Feeding of Digital Natives

On the day my first child was born in New York City in 1993, my wife told me she was kept awake that night by all the sirens.  These wails that most New Yorkers instinctively ignore suddenly had new meaning; they became a chorus singing the refrain of all the terrible things that can happen to a person.  I suspect most new parents are familiar with this initial moment of terror, the foreverness of the child;  and it doesn’t take long to see a future when you will not always be there to protect him from the hazardous world, or even from himself.  It is a very brief interval between embracing a newborn and the realization that your whole job as a parent will be a strategically organized process of letting go.  And when the hopes and fears that come with that understanding collide with the riot of theories, advice, toys, foods, classes, and gadgets all promising to help give one’s children competitive advantages in life, contemporary parents can become paralyzed by the anxiety that they’re doing everything wrong or militant in their confidence that they are doing everything right.

While that baby was just beginning to crawl around the apartment, a new sound, less melodious than sirens, was added to our lives.  The dial-up modem I’d bought squealed and scratched out its staticky attempts to connect to AmericaOnline. After several loud and dissonant failures, my wife asked what the hell I was doing.  “Trying to get online,” I said.

“Why?” she asked.

“I don’t know yet,” I replied.  And maybe I’m still trying to answer that question. But no matter what, the boy on the floor and the siblings who followed would be identified in the lingo of marketing and demographics as “digital natives,” and we were their parents.

With each new development in the range of products, apps, games, and content, comes a smattering of editorials asking the same fundamental  questions about how to monitor and/or regulate the role of technology in the lives of our children.  These articles typically focus on topics like Internet safety for teens or limits on “screen time” for younger children; and nearly all the articles I’ve read in this vein cite statistics indicating that parents of digital natives are not nearly involved enough in their children’s digital lives.  This is probably true, though there are so many factors that affect parental involvement in any aspect of their kids’ lives that I’m not going to open that can of sociological worms in this article.

Of course, we not only have to deal with the matter of our kids’ use of technologies, but also our own use, especially any technologies through which we interact with our kids.  As mentioned, we parents have been bombarded with “new” ideas in childcare for over 20 years, and it can be a little crazy-making. And for all the stereotypes about millennials appended to their devices, we Gen-Xers ought to cop to the fact that we were the early adopters of all these gadgets we then handed to our children.  It’s our parents who still have AOL email accounts, who raised us in a world without bike helmets and who had one book by a guy named Spock (not that Spock) on the subject of childcare. We new parents of the late 80s and early 90s have been the consumers of billions of dollars in “solutions” to make our kids smarter, stronger, and just get them into a damned NYC pre-school.  So, when it comes to tech innovations, we are culturally primed to reverse the adage and believe that invention is the mother of necessity.  There’s an app that makes my kid eat broccoli?? Download that puppy!!

Okay, maybe it’s not quite that crazy yet, but consider this TV spot for Dropcam by Nest. It features a precocious toddler adorably resigned to the installation of a home surveillance camera that will now catch him engaging in his favorite, destructive shenanigans. Never mind the fact that any child as committed to catastrophe as this boy is going to disable the Dropcam the day it arrives; but more importantly, child surveillance of this kind is a damn weird way to market this product.  Then again, Nest is owned by Google, and Google moves in mysterious ways.

Comedian Bill Maher rightly mocked this commercial on his blog, describing it as a great way to prepare your child to live in a surveillance state. I also think Maher is on target when he concludes, “But if kids never have a moment when no one is watching, how are they ever supposed to develop character?”  This refers back to the aforementioned job of the parent, which is to let go in stages.  In short, if parents envision using Dropcam as it is literally portrayed in this spot — to monitor their kids rather than show them age-appropriate trust, they probably need to rearrange their priorities and set aside whatever it is they’re doing instead of raising the child.  This is one of those moments when technology is offering a solution looking for a problem that, if employed, probably creates a brand new problem.

But I doubt the spot is meant to be taken so literally. I think the commercial probably wants to imply the more likely scenario in which the Dropcam captures that adorable child moment you might otherwise have missed. Plus, according to the online marketing materials, if you subscribe to the optional cloud storage for your video clips, you can choose to share any serendipitous cuteness on social media.  And there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, though it is unquestionably a step closer toward normalizing 24/7, 360˚ self-surveillance, which is not without potential hazards.  Considering the incidents of hacked data, Facebook surveillance, Smart TVs accidentally listening to us, the ability of hackers to surreptitiously enable webcams, and Google reading G-Mail, how comfortable are we with the idea of filling our homes with networked web-cams continuously sending video to cloud servers owned by Google or any other company with a vested interest in data mining?

Of course, the primary reason to employ home video surveillance is security, and there are certainly attractive qualities to networked monitoring systems that are remotely viewable and controllable. But it remains to be seen, as these technologies evolve, whether consumers will feel the security and convenience benefits outweigh the security risks involved. And as the oldest digital natives are just becoming parents themselves, it will be interesting to see if their adoption of “smart home” technologies is as innate as their adoption of other networked devices.  No matter what, I hope they don’t raise their kids in an atmosphere of surveillance as this TV commercial implies. Because the implications of that are anything but adorable.

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