It came up somehow the other day in our faculty cross-curricular post-planning meeting (sounds fancy, huh?) that a good number of our school’s second graders have cell phones. Mostly smart phones. Seven-year olds are now equipped not only to browse and download all the web has to offer, they could also, theoretically, type a paper, start a blog, or, like that little girl in the phone commercial, start a lemonade empire.
This is Progress* for you. No one under twenty five or so would likely be all that shocked to hear about the second graders’ phones, but for those of us who grew up back in the day, this is still kind of a shocking reality. Think about it: when I was a kid, I did have a television in my room—which was actually somewhat unusual in my group of friends—but that was it. Our family, like most, didn’t have a computer until the mid nineties. So of course life was different back then, as those of us who experienced (or have been forced to hear about it) know. But here’s the thing. If you accept the basic tenet that tools are what separate us from the animals, isn’t it significant that kids today are equipped with so many powerful tools at such a young age? I really think we’re talking about more than a change in how kids spend their free time.
Here’s my theory: having access to the same tools adults to makes them grow up faster. I don’t just mean that kids can access adult content online—I think it might go further than that. Today, for maybe the first time in history, the second grader and the businessman have access to exactly the same tools. Once upon a time, a person had to enter adulthood first, and then they went to work, where they were equipped with a computer, phone (and later work-sponsored mobile phones). Today, some kids are getting all that practically at birth, no job required. I made it through college on a Smith-Corona word processor with a tiny little LCD screen. You could move blocks of texts around, but it almost made you blind. Now, just a couple of generations later, my students have laptops more powerful than any in existence during my college years. (I love it when my students complain about computer problems, I’m like, you just have no idea.)
I know technology changes the way we interact with the world—it has to. But I also think that having the same tools as the adults is one of the factors that’s erasing childhood. In some ways, empowering kids is a positive. But for every good technology brings, it takes something else away. These kids with the cell phones may never know how great it feels to be playing outside and out of earshot—free. For one thing, these poor mites are carrying Mom in their pockets all the time. Nine times out of ten when one of my students gets a text in class, they tell me, “But it’s my mom!” Technology has definitely allowed the helicopter parent a whole new level of attachment and involvement. When I see Facebook posts from parents to their kids saying, “Call Me,” it kind of makes me glad that my parents are still on dial-up internet and have no interest in that world.
So there are some clear negatives, but there are certainly benefits. These kids will enter the workplace computer savvy, as opposed to playing catch-up on the side while also learning how to do their actual job, like we did.
They can do anything, really. With the right tools, the world is your oyster. I’ve recently been re-watching one of my favorite shows, Veronica Mars. If you’ve never seen it, because you missed it, or you came of age in the era of The Vampire/Witch/Werewolf: when the show began, Veronica was a seventeen-year old who helped her dad, a private investigator, with his cases. Except she seemed to solve more cases than he did—and why? She had the tools. She had a laptop, cell phone, and access to databases and information courtesy of her father’s work. Essentially, Veronica was a private detective. Even though this was fiction, it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched. Why not? The character was a very bright, resourceful person. Add in the right tools, and there’s nothing to separate her from any other adult starting out in that field. You can get experience simply by doing. She could not have done the job at age ten—developmentally, humans aren’t ready for adult cognition at ten (yet?). But at seventeen, properly equipped, why not?
This new breed of kids, growing up with the same tools as adults for the entirety of their lives hasn’t grown up…yet. I think it will be interesting to see whether the tools give them such a boost that they leap over and past childhood, or whether the inherent distractions, the dark side of these devices and tools, will simply infantalize them. Rather than wanting to learn and master an adult skill at seventeen, maybe they won’t ever want to. It’s a brave new world out there. Grown-ups, just keep in mind the playing field’s been leveled a bit in recent years. If you do have a lemonade business, be careful that some little girl with a smart phone doesn’t put you out of business.
*I am rather Saddened that the eighteenth century custom of Capitalizing words that were Important is not longer an Option. I had a Student this year who used this System, and I must say it was rather Entertaining.