My parents raised me in an interesting time. As I was coming of age, videogames were becoming mainstream, Saturday morning cartoons were becoming a four to five hour ordeal, and I was able to make plans and have conversations with all of my friends without ever leaving the computer, let alone verbalizing. Even grounding me couldn’t keep me unoccupied once I had my cell phone. My mom and dad had to deal with a lot of things that their parents couldn’t even have dreamed about, but I don’t think even they could have foreseen what we’ll be dealing with with our kids.
I don’t even think any of us have really looked ahead to see what raising a generation that’s younger than Facebook will be like. True, there are parents today with kids younger than seven, but only a handful of those “get Facebook”. Mostly, they’re still the parents that “saw a thing on the YouTube”, or they type “www.google.com” into their Yahoo search bar. Kids today have seamlessly integrated the internet into their lives, and their parents still think it’s a nice, helpful tool to help you organize your social life. Once my generation becomes the parental norm, however, we’ll have parents who actually understand how the internet works, and have been on it their entire adult lives, raising kids who don’t know what a world without Facebook is.
That’s where it all starts: Facebook will be the status quo. Not just Facebook, but online culture in general. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare, YouTube, Reddit, whatever the next thing is -- to kids born today, these aren’t new additions to the social atmosphere. These are the social atmosphere. Our parents dealt with us when we were learning how to use MySpace, AIM profiles, and Napster. It was an innocent time- you pre-paid for time on AOL, a little extra if you wanted a whole internet browser, then got a screen name and customized your text size, font, and color for your profile. Now, everyone maintains webpages- not “profiles”, whole webpages- at a number of different sites across the internet.
Currently, I regularly update my own personal spaces on the web at Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Google+, Foursquare, Reddit, last.fm, Grooveshark, ImprovTeams.com, and here at The Inclusive. And that’s me, Sean Curry, an adult with responsibilities and a job and the desire to look like a capable human being with an active social life all weighing on my time. As plugged in as I like to be, these factors severely limit how much effort I can put into my online presence. For me and my generation, arguably the first ones to widely adopt the internet in our social lives, there’s still only so much we can do to maintain our online identities.
But kids today, and the kids we’ll be raising within the next ten years, will have much less pulling at their attention than we do. They’ll be on everything I’m on, plus about fifty other fly-by-night sites that I’ll never even hear about. Xoonster, Flipback, The Outers, MoreShare- I just made those names up, but they sound real, don’t they? They probably already exist in some start-up entrepreneur’s mind and their corresponding .com’s are almost assuredly already claimed. We’ll see in three years which ones actually come through (I’m banking on Flipback or MoreShare).
For me and those born in the 80s and early 90s, each website that pops up is an outlet for a certain part of our personalities. My witty side comes out on Twitter, my nerd-ranty side comes out on Tumblr, Reddit showcases the troll in me, and Facebook is where they all come together and I bewilder my normal friends with the weird stuff I find online. But for internet users born since and beyond, the internet will come first. For that generation, looking up people’s info online will be the norm. The way I just said that even shows how out of touch I’ll be with them. For them, it won’t be “looking up Jimmy’s info online”, it’ll just be “Jimmy”. Your “online identity” won’t be something separate from you, it will be you as much as your education or your resume is, or even more so. As much as I think I get the internet, my kids will... I don’t even know how to say it yet, but the closest I can get is: My kids will be the internet. Or the internet will be them? The internet will be an non-detachable aspect of their personality, completely irremovable from the identity they create for themselves.
Play dates won’t happen in chat rooms, they’ll happen in fully-immersible, three dimensional and 360 degree environments. Once video chats become three dimensional (you don’t think they will?), your daughter will be able to go on three dates in between the time she comes home from school and when you call her down to dinner. And hey, who says we’ll even be using computer screens at that point? We’re already getting close to using ocular implants to allow blind people to see- once that becomes a reality, how quickly will our “computer screens” just become a display in our mind?
These mind-blowing technological advancements (by 2001’s standards), coupled with how integrated online identities will be with an individual’s own concept of him or herself, will mean that taking away the cell phone won’t be enough to ground your kids. Hell, they’ll laugh it off. That will be like not allowing a kid today to send a physical letter to his friends through the US Postal Service. You’ll have to unplug his wifi, if we’re even still using wifi then. You will have to unplug your child’s body’s wifi in order to ground him. Somehow.
“Well, I just won’t get ocular implants and wifi for my child’s brain. That’s too much for a kid to have to deal with.” First off, I’d like to congratulate you on being a rational human being who seems to legitimately care about your future child’s mental and physical well-being. But before you say that, let’s fast forward ten years:
Your job’s corporate brass has adopted Apple’s latest iOS, the meOS, as the company-wide standard. It utilizes ocular implants and individual wifi to create a totally personalized and unique web surfing experience to streamline your commerce, business, and personal needs all in one place! No longer will you have to worry about synching all your personal iDevices in the iCloud, because you’ll only have one iDevice: your brain. Sure, you could hold out against it and continue to use your Blackberry and laptop for work and your iPhone and Macbook at home, but once everyone at your office gets on board and you’re the only one that your HR department has to make separately-formatted memos for, peer pressure will make up your mind pretty quick.
You’ll integrate into the new professional paradigm, the way you finally got a laptop just for you when you went to college and the way your parents got you and each of your siblings their own cell phones in the early 2000s. And once you do, you’ll wonder how you ever dealt with email before you virtually possessed the ability to telepathically write and send one. Suddenly, your non-plugged-in kids are becoming a hassle to communicate with. You’ll have a cell phone just for them and your parents to be able to call you on. Every time you start to telepathically write a note to your kids saying Mrs. Henderson down the street is going to pick them up from school today, you’ll be reminded what a pain in the ass it is to pick up a phone and hit a button on it for every single character in your message.
Your 10 year old will have the meOS implant within a month. And of course, she’s going to want to be on Facebook, because all of her friends will be, and 87% of their parents will know about it. So you’ll put her on Facebook Kids!, the new online option for today’s plugged-in youth. You’ll be getting pop up notifications every time she writes on a friend’s wall or tells a boy that the picture of his abs looks just like Edward Cullen’s (or whoever the sparkly heartthrob is in ten years), and it’s going to get in the way of your work’s pop up notifications and event reminders. Once she gets on Google+’s 3D Hangouts, you’ll be trying to monitor who she’s hanging out with while wrapping up this presentation for tonight’s 3 AM digital mind immersion (we’ll probably just call it DMI then) conference with the Japanese office...
It’s not as simple as it sounds by today’s standards, is it? The future is going to be a terrifying place to raise a child in, in ways that my parents couldn’t possibly hope to foresee. Even with all the future-speculating I’ve done here, I’m sure some new technology or social media start up will come along and completely blow all this out of the water. And as frustrating as it’s going to be to raise kids in that world, it’s going to be even harder to keep our positions as upstanding, model parents for our kids to look up to, because every single thing we’ve ever done on the internet, from age 13 through high school and college to the present, will be there for our kids to sift through and use against us, whether we like it or not.
Come back in two weeks to explore that terrifying prospect with me.