NOT FOLLOWING THE CROWD: ‘Digital Immigrants’ v. ‘Digital Natives’

Written by Wes Walker on October 10, 2014

Like other tools, Social Media is morally neutral.

Used well, social media explodes into a multiplier effect for worthy causes, maybe the launch of a new business, promoting a good idea or charity, sometimes even finding a missing person. Typically, it’s a vehicle for harmless time-wasters: memes or kitten videos. But sometimes, it strays into the darker side of human nature. There, it can be used to harass, hurt, or pull people into dangerous situations.

Part of the problem? The world kids are now raised in really IS different from the world their parents remember.

Parents are often “Digital Immigrants” — a term for people who haven’t always had computers looming large in their lives, while today’s children are “Digital Natives”. (For more, see Marc Perensky).

The question Parents from the “Digital Immigrant” class face today is: how do we best support our children to survive in a world so different than the one we remember?

For our generation, if someone gave us a hard time at school, it couldn’t last forever. Worst-case scenario, you knew you’d get a reprieve when you closed the door behind you at home. Today, even the home doesn’t offer solace. “Always on-line” means you can always be reached.

Aside from the teasing/harassment angle so focused on by the anti-bully campaigns, there’s another aspect which — as a father of Digital Native children — is of more immediate concern to me.

Human nature is no different from when we were kids. That doesn’t worry me. But the tools, and the (perceived) force of peer pressure now seems far more intense than it was back then.

Instead of yester-year’s “three buddies trying to convince you to do something stupid and/or dangerous — and calling you chicken if you wouldn’t” – today’s kids are dealing with FaceBook challenges and YouTube phenomenons.

Meaning, kids film themselves doing silly stunts, ranging from mildly stupid, to truly Darwin-Award-worthy. They’re setting themselves on fire. Eating cinnamon by the spoonful. Using a motorcycle’s tire to spin some dumb buddy on a merry-go-round.

There is nothing new, as I have said, in guys pressuring each other to do something embarrassing, dangerous, or patently stupid. But social media raises the stakes higher.

Saying “no” to three buddies who also chickened out? That’s easy enough.

Saying “no”, and seeming “weak” to an imagined audience of The-Entire-Internet? Well, that’s a little harder. Especially if the camera’s rolling, and it’s going to be uploaded.

As a parent, I’ve been watching for an opportunity to help with this lesson. That opportunity took an unexpected form.

This past summer, one well-known cause found a novel way to raise money and awareness for itself. Their campaign “went viral”.

The premise was simple. It worked exactly like a chain letter. All you need to do, is film and then upload yourself performing a stunt (ice water was involved), and “nominate” (i.e. call out by name) certain other people who had to film themselves doing the same thing within 24 hours.

By nature, I’m not a chain-letter kind of person. That’s probably why I “dodged the bullet” for most of this particular campaign. Nobody tagged me… until they did.

Now I had a decision to make. Does “worthy cause” trump “peer pressure”? Do I participate because I was told to do it? Do I ignore it, and look like the grouchy “get off my lawn” guy?

I went a different direction.  I got the ice water ready, wrote a little script, and stood with my kids in my backyard.

I mentioned the challenge, the charity, and said I wished it well, having no disagreement with them. I mentioned the ice water, and that I didn’t mind having it dumped on my head. (My kids enjoyed that part quite a lot, since they got to do the dumping.)

Continuing, I said that when I give to any cause, it is a private decision. When I give, it is always because I want to, and support it, not because I was pressured to join in, and it’s never something I want to announce publicly.

By my own example, I deliberately gave my kids permission to say “no” even when it’s friends or family pressuring you to do something…and yes, even if that something is a “good thing”.

In such situations, “NO” is ALWAYS an option.

Did I film the water getting dumped over my head? Absolutely. I’ll even send a copy to the family members who want to see it. But I don’t need to post it online.

For me, it was far more important to teach my kids it was always OK to say no, than it was to join a bandwagon on a charitable cause that had “gone viral”.