Technological change and the hard work of parenting

Alison Gopnik reports in the Wall Street Journal: “Two large-scale surveys done in 2007 and 2013 in the Netherlands and Bermuda, involving thousands of adolescents, found that teenagers who engaged in more online communication also reported more and better friendships.”

That’s a heartening correlation to anyone who doesn’t want to have to worry about the consequences their kids’ technology use, but it isn’t causality. It should not be surprising that people who have more and closer friendships would communicate with those friends by whatever means their society and economy provides, and that “more online communication” would thus correlate with “more and better friendships.” I do wonder what, exactly, “more and better friendships means”; in particular I wonder if the researchers’ construction of that idea ultimately collapses into a definition of extraversion, but I’m not interested enough to dig up the original article. I’m more interested in Gopnik’s use of the study, which is to dismiss the worries of parents (or of anyone else) as mere nostalgia.

Here’s her lede:

The other day, a newspaper writer joined the chorus of angry voices about the bad effects of new technology. “There can be no rational doubt that [it] has caused vast injury.” It is “superficial, sudden, unsifted, too fast for the truth.” The day was in 1858, and the quote was about the telegraph. Similarly, the telephone, radio and television have each in turn been seen as a source of doom.

That kind of anecdote might score points at dinner parties, if anybody still has dinner parties. But it’s irrelevant to the matter at hand, and its implication, reduced to a logical proposition, is simply absurd: People have been saying bad things about technology before, but They haven’t happened yet (a debatable point), and so therefore new technologies won’t lead to bad things now. Maybe, maybe not, but the argument doesn’t hold. Thus says, after all, the alcoholic who believes that since he hasn’t hit bottom yet his family and friends must just be scolds. If I were to be extraordinarily lazy, I could cite the slowly boiling frog and be done.

But I’ll ask instead: Doom? Who said anything about doom? That unnamed writer of 1858 employed some hyperbole, but not that much. In fact, by comparison with the world of print and horse-drawn mail that preceded it, the telegraph did provide information that was superficial, sudden, and unsifted — and faster than the truth-making means that culture had could immediately handle. Since 1858 was the year of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which were broadcast to the rest of the country in almost real time via telegraph, and since the fame Lincoln earned in those debates propelled him to the presidency two years later, and since — well, we all know what happened next — that brief quotation raises some genuinely interesting questions that will not, I think, have simple answers.

I’ll also ask: What does that historical example have to do with online interaction and the quality of friendships? The writer of 1858 was talking about the impact of quantity and immediacy of information on our ability to make sense of it (and by implication raising the question of what that “sense” is or ought to be). A better present-day analogue would be 24-hour cable news — er, no, that’s already outdated; try the impact of social media on presidential elections. We still struggle with these issues, and the fact that we’ve struggled with them for a century and a half doesn’t mean we can responsibly quit now.

In any case, the study Gopnik is ostensibly discussing didn’t address change over time. It couldn’t. She notes that “The researchers… emphasize the inevitable limitations of existing studies, since these issues have arisen so recently.” What this study suggests to the parent of a teenager is that you probably won’t be helping your kids develop better social skills in this society, now, today, by ordering them off Facebook. It doesn’t — because it can’t — address the matter of whether kids in general would be better off without social media and electronic communication. It doesn’t, because it can’t, say whether the quality of friendships your kids are developing are better or worse, deeper or shallower, by whatever standards you choose, than yours were at their age. There isn’t any data available for comparison from 10, 20, or 50 years ago, even if social science were an adequate tool for answering those questions.

And yet I think Gopnik is actually correct that what most parents are really worried about is change over time — but she’s wrong to dismiss those concerns, because they are not merely nostalgic, nor are they only a “kids these days” lament. I might sum up the core concern this way: I learned a lot of lessons the hard way, and I would like to spare my children the burden of doing the same. But the pace of change makes my wisdom seem obsolete, and so I don’t know how to offer guidance. Yes, everybody has to learn some things the hard way, but it’s nevertheless a parent’s job to offer just that kind of guidance, and the pace of change makes that job far harder than it already is. The rules and boundaries you were given or learned on your own don’t apply, or don’t seem to, but you can’t responsibly risk setting none at all. Again: this is a core struggle of rearing children, in (I have to believe) all times and places. But rapid technological and cultural change amplifies that struggle. It tilts the playing field against you. To say so isn’t to be nostalgic for the past, nor is it to fear change. It’s merely to want to help our kids navigate an extraordinarily difficult phase of life, and to observe that we’re even more helpless to do so than we would otherwise be. That’s a good thing to want and a reasonable frustration.

Thoughtful discussion of the problem might help. Social science can’t: this is a problem for the humanities. And Gopnik’s dismissal admits only one answer — laissez-faire — which is as lazy an approach to parenting as her article is to analysis. Claiming that a hard thing is easy does not make it so, and ignoring a problem does not make it go away. Those are a couple of my own hard-learned lessons, and you can have them.