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Wednesday, 29 January 2014 16:20

Raising youth in the digital age

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bookFour years ago in November, a schoolteacher in Knoxville asked her English class to write a composition on family dinner together. With two exceptions, the class — a racially mixed, lower income group of students — hooted at her in derision.

“We don’t eat no meals together,” several students yelled. “All right,” the teacher said. “Write about Thanksgiving dinner at your house.” Again came a chorus of hoots and laughter. A student explained: “My mom just throws the food on a table, and we grab what we want when we want and take it to our rooms and watch television.” 

Today young people of every race and social class are wired to one another and the world beyond via computers and phones in ways their parents and grandparents could scarcely imagine. Like Frodo’s ring, this technology — the games, the laptops, the phones, all of it — offers its users enormous power and many gifts. Used irresponsibility, however, these same wonderful tools can transform users into Gollum, twisted by the power of their gadgets as he was by the power of the ring, alienated from real human contact, addicted in some cases to pornography, gambling, and games, yes, but much more commonly becoming junkies needing a constant fix from their machines.

In Talking Back To Facebook: The Common Sense Guide to Raising Kids in the Digital Age (ISBN 978-1-4516-5734-0, $15), James P. Steyer, attorney, Stanford professor, and CEO of Common Sense Media, discusses the impact of technology on young people and the ramifications of literally becoming addicted to our machines. He devotes the first half of the book to such various electronic issues as the effect of computers on the brain, the loss of privacy in social media, the innocence lost when exposed too early to such media and the positive effects of computers and mobile phones. In the pages remaining, he examines the effects of such media on children and teenagers by specific age groups and makes recommendations on using computers and phones wisely.

One interesting feature of this well-written book is its introduction by Chelsea Clinton. Her comments about her parents and their watchful control of her media habits as a child are instructive, but even more importantly, her remarks will make readers remember how new most of this technology is. Clinton, who worked as a research assistant for Steyer when at Stanford, is still a young woman, yet as she points out, the last 25 years have brought incredible changes to our world, changes which are having a dramatic impact, positive and negative, on the young in particular. 

Steyer is not an opponent of this new technology. Like most of us, he applauds the advances of the last three decades and is appreciative of the many benefits these advances have wrought. Talking Back To Facebook is instead a call to parents to monitor the role played by this technology in the lives of their children. In the chapter titled “Ages Nine to Ten,” for example, his advice about getting “your kid a cell phone” seems right on target; he advocates putting off cell phones until high school, but adds that if a mobile phone is necessary, then parents should purchase a basic cell phone so that “you can have the security of voice communication without adding to your child’s digital distractions.” In other words, a phone, not a toy.

Written clearly, filled with practical tips, and from a writer who himself is both an expert in the field of communications and the father of four, Talking Back To Facebook is an excellent resource for parents.

•••

In the misnamed Why Teach? In Defense Of A Real Education (978-1-62040-107-1, $24), University of Virginia English professor and author Mark Edmundson calls for a reevaluation of our educational values, particularly at the college level. Edmundson is the author of Why Read?, an excellent book on literature and its value for us in our daily lives, and I suppose this accounts for the title of Why Teach? But this is a misnomer; though part of the book is about teaching and teachers, Edmundson aims a good number of pages at students, explaining to them the pitfalls they will encounter in higher education, calling on them to put aside their electronic lives to engage literature, their professors, and their fellow students, and exhorting them to find themselves an education in a system that is all too often antipathetic to real education. 

For a long time, I have followed Edmundson through his books and his online articles, and though he and I would disagree on a good number of issues, particularly those of a political or religious nature, he nonetheless remains for me that ideal of a liberal arts professor. He loves his subject — English literature; he understands its value for his students; he is willing to listen to opinions diverging from his own beliefs; he offers sound advice with wit and flair.

Edmundson also understands what makes for a real education. He disparages the current trend seeking to turn colleges into degree factories preparing students for the job market. Instead, Edmundson — and your reviewer — see college as a place where a young person should be exposed to new ideas and ways to critique those ideas. Here, for example, from the chapter title “Dwelling In Possibilities,” we can see what Edmundson is after in his call for real education:

“For a student to be educated, she has to face brilliant antagonists. She has to encounter thinkers who see the world in different terms than she does. Does she come to college as a fundamentalist guardian of crude faith? Then two necessary books for her are Freud’s Future of Illusion or Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ. Once she’s weathered the surface insults, she may find herself in an intellectual version of paradise, where she can defend her beliefs or change them, and where what’s on hand is not a chance conversation, as Socrates liked to say, but a dialogue about how to live.” 

In the next paragraph Edmundson makes similar comments regarding a liberal, agnostic student who comes to the university and what books that student should engage on religious faith. In both cases, Edmundson’s point is clear. A university isn’t just about partying with friends, getting a degree, and finding a job.

It should be a dialogue about how to live.

Talking Back To Facebook: The Common Sense Guide to Raising Kids in the Digital Age by James P. Steyer. Scribner, 2012. 224 pages.

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