A blog by Dr. Don Grant, MA, MFA, CCDC, PhD
Millennial technology proffers previously unimaginable opportunities which have forever changed our relationships, our culture, world, and constructs of self-identity. On the darker side, technology and the devices which support and deliver them (especially in the form of Smartphones, computers/tablets, the Internet, social media, gaming, and cyberporn) have also become the newest-and most potentially dangerous-arguable "drugs of choice" for many individuals, couples, and families (Grant, 2015). The "Digital Native" generations (Gens X, Y, Z, and so-called "iGen" (Twenge, 2017) population of millennial adolescents, teenagers, and young adults continue to demonstrate profoundly new reactions, responses, behaviors, attachments, reliance, and relationships with their technology and personal devices. According to Statista, the number of Smartphone uses worldwide reached 2.53 in 2019 (www.statista.com.). The social media juggernaut Facebook claims to have more than two billion members (www.techcrunch.com), but was recently hit with a five billion dollar fine by the Federal Trade Commission for privacy lapses. Statista also predicts that personal mobile tablet users will reach more than 1.3 billion this year, and continue to rise.
Why then are individuals across generational, cultural, socio-economic, race, religion, and gender continuing to increasingly complain of feeling "disconnected," "disenfranchised," and "alone" in an era which offers greater inter-connection than ever before? Why does media appear to become daily more prolific in terms of content discussing our potential "addiction" to our devices, and the impact it may have on our biological, psychological, sociological, academic, professional, family, and community health? Why are some researchers alleging that our devices-and the platforms they deliver-are generating a serious and sudden pandemic of depression, anxiety, self-harm, cyberbullying, and even suicide within our teenage and young adult population (www.forbes.com., www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/nov/14/teen-suicides-rise-with-smartphone-social-media-us/)?
More importantly for this particular narrative, why ever did I decide back in 2007 to begin investigating any of this? Well the answer is a bit complicated, to be sure, but I know that I didn’t plan it. Upon reflection, the most important reason is that not only am I a parent, but also both a member of the very last cohort of “Digital Immigrants” who will ever walk this planet, and the father of the very first “Digital Natives.” Thus, my kids and I “grew” up with the millennial technology and platforms together. But as use and utilization of each new device, software, tool, and application appeared to just be conquered with incredibly facile agility for my children, for me their navigation and “learning curve” was much more of an inorganic struggle; my brain just literally wasn’t wired for it. They loved exploring and figuring out the latest devices and increasingly fascinating virtual playgrounds they delivered. I desperately searched for “directions,” “guidebooks,” and “manuals” that just didn’t exist.
But with stalwartly determined parental love and commitment, (and, okay, maybe a few YouTube tutorial videos), I eventually managed to slowly and unsteadily cross the chasm over to their technologically-driven world. I can’t say that I did always did it well, (there may or may not have been a strong outpouring of inappropriate language when overly frustrated by my increasingly clear lack of digital skill sets), but I realized early on that playing with these new toys-especially the smartphone-could be a bit dangerous. So, I wanted to know how everything about how they worked, understand why they were becoming a non-negotiable “must have” accessory, and why everyone around me-including my two daughters-appeared to be becoming increasingly attached to them 24/7/365.
Back then I was certainly not planning (nor ever expecting!) to end up spending the next decade+ of my life (and volitionally assume an egregious amount of student loan debt) studying, researching, creating, developing, and testing a whole bunch of new skills and strategies just to try and help my kids, also then also my clients, colleagues-and even some friends who ask for guidance-enjoy a healthier, kinder, more practical, and sometimes even safer relationship with these beyond sci-fi movie fantasy gadgets. Back in 2008 when we bought our daughter her first iPhone and Apple laptop, I was honestly just a SERIOUSLY millennially-challenged dad who felt it was important to understand the miraculous new playthings for which my kids constantly begged… and were also seriously obsessed. But because of where I was placed in history, my determination to be a good parent and not just hand my children an untested and unprecedented set of digital-driven “power tools” without understanding them myself, unexpectedly led me down a vast and unchartered slope into the vast vortex in which we now find ourselves living, working, playing-and often still struggling to successfully navigate and negotiate.
MapQuest and Waves are awesome, but have also sadly been of no assistance on this pioneer journey of mine. I admit that too often I have felt beyond stupid or ridiculously and overwhelmingly out of my depth. State of the art in the morning today seems like it becomes obsolete by noon. Augmented and virtual realities are event horizons which will once more forever alter and change the game in a way I will most likely never be able (or forced!) to comprehend. I have wanted to quit this work and just relax into my digitally immigrant lifestyle many, many times. But I believe in the importance of true human connection, and fear that so many things which make us human and truly connected will be lost forever to digital natives who for some reason neither see nor respect their value.
I also recognize that you don’t miss what you never knew, so I am committed to trying to teach and share the importance of even just looking up and living in present presence, as long as I am able. If on any given day I am only fourteen steps behind the digital natives with whom I work, I tell myself I am #CRUSHINGIT. I am also now humbled and honored to be invited to share my work with sorts of audiences worldwide-including my fellow Digital Immigrants who also struggle with resisting the lure of living in “absent presence” through over-engagement and reliance with their devices. The generous support of courageous visionary Sam Quinlan and iCAAD being an unbelievable and best (as well as my favorite!) of these amazing opportunities. I have even been commissioned by the American Psychological Association to write the only book they plan to publish, on a topic which a short time ago was not even “a thing.”
Truly beyond anything I could have imagined when I was just trying to be a good father.
Speaking of that…
There was one experience in particular along the way which was watershed poignant for me. It arrived completely unexpectedly one otherwise ordinary Spring day when my eldest daughter announced to her mom and I (rather surprisingly “lo-key,” as the kids say) that she wanted to try and get a weekend gig at a trendy clothing store. We were flooded with an entire Crayola Crayon 64 Pack color cavalcade of emotions simultaneously. Although it sadly enjoys no current context or even attached meaning to modern metaphor, in my historical lexicon, this would have indeed been, an absolute and true:
As the father of a then-mid-teenaged daughter interested in securing her first part time job, I finally saw one of those moments which sadly seem to become increasingly more intermittent as our kids work themselves through those years. I, of course, seized the increasingly rare (read: like T-Swift level “never ever… like EVER…”) opportunity to offer her useful “fatherly” advice that wasn’t “lame.” I mean, certainly in this instance, my own experience on both sides of the interview table could not be dismissed.
To my elation (and honest shock), she was actually open to my counsel. I over-eagerly accepted her IRL bid to “follow” and maybe even “teach” her something.
I sat with her and paternal patiently (read: thrilled and also perhaps a wee bit immaturely smug that I FINALLY had both her attention and also the potential to impress my beloved Millennial with my mature experience!) “crafted” a “resume.” As her “current employment status” was “full time high school student who had never been paid as anything more than the occasional babysitter or intermittent dog walker,” we both agreed that without actually “lying,” it couldn’t hurt her to be a bit… well… let’s just say… “creative…” in this task. Thus, with the absolutely understandable goal of better competing with other applicants who might be more seasoned in the minor world workforce, “babysitter” easily became “adolescent caregiver” and “dog walker” was guiltlessly promoted to “pet support specialist.”
In addition to gently buttressing her limited employment experience, (and of course dexterously documenting her authentic academic and extracurriculars), we also needed to ensure that should she receive an interview, she was prepped and prepared. Still miraculously open to my experience and advice, she actually allowed me to “coach” her for the potential retailing audition, during which we explored and “role played” possible questions she might be asked by her interviewer.
After about an hour of this fantastic father-daughter bonding bash, both of us agreed she was ready to crush any question that might be thrown her way.
She applied online, and a few days later, received a TEXT message (Spoiler Alert: THIS communication alert avenue should have served as a “Get Woke Digital Immigrant Warning” to me of how our “Brave New World” now works) advising her she had indeed been selected for an interview. The only additional information provided was a “Google Maps” interview location link. She was over the “Goodnight Moon”-and ALL over social media sharing-about this exciting opportunity. On the big day she carefully constructed her wardrobe, painstakingly applied her make-up (assiduously hommaging a Kylie Jenner Insta-torial) to showcase her inherent beauty and style, and sailed out of the house with me “game- show-speed-round” quizzing her to ensure she had landed all we had rehearsed. I spent the next two hours feeling super pleased with my excellent paternal tutoring, when suddenly I heard her car returning to the driveway, and a few minutes later two strong door slams in a row. One was the front door, the other the portal to her bedroom.
My heart sunk, realizing that she must have either choked and not remembered her “script.”
She stayed in her room for a couple of hours and then finally emerged. I gently approached, but it was clear from her cold response that she was ghosting me and not interested in discussing the event. I let her be, feeling sad for my child. Later that night at dinner, it was clear that although still not cool, she was slightly more chill. Her younger sister was the one bold enough to finally breach the barricade and investigate
how the interview had gone. The response was short and not sweet.
“It sucked. I didn’t get it.”
Pause. Pause. Loooooooong pause.
Then little sister, maybe in an favoritism-gleaning attempt to help out poor old dad, or perhaps just so used to her elder sister’s perpetual torture that she had become inured to it, courageously went to bat again.
“Why? I thought Daddy helped you with your resume, and you guys practiced all those questions.”
Longer pause even than before, as I nervously awaited arrogant confirmation of assumption she had either stumbled over the interview questions or not had enough on her resume, when she exposed for me exactly how useless a dad from another time really is.
“Yeah. And they didn’t even care. They didn’t even want a resume. And they only asked me one question.”
No resume? Wow. Well, I thought, that’s probably because they already had all the deets they needed through the online application she had submitted, and maybe they were trying to be more “green.” But of course, now I was dying to know the nemesis question over which she had obviously faltered, causing her to be cut from moving on to the next round. I didn’t have to wait long.
“OMG… you are SO annoying.”
(I assumed she meant little sis and not me)
“So if you MUST know… they had us take Selfies and then text it to them. Then they asked how many ‘Followers’ we have on “Insta.” The girl with the most got the job. She was seriously so basic it was embarrassing. The only thing that made it not completely heinous is that I actually had the second most. But basic bitch still had more. Whatever. I don’t even care anymore.”
What? “Selfies?” The size of your “Followship” on a social media platform determined your employment fate? That made absolutely no sense to my immigrant-wired brain- and actually distracted me from challenging the bad language.
But then it all did. And it was actually quite brilliant from the side of the store. Obviously, most teenager “resumes” would be pretty anemic in terms of any real retail experience, so that isn’t a particularly valuable variable. But the more people you could potentially reach through your social media posts could be a legit consideration. In the “currency” of social media, “creators” with lots of “followers” are considered “influencers.” Thus, they could wield that influence toward totally free advertising, geo-targeted at their perfect bell curve desired market demographic, photoshop filter-showcasing any/all store items, promoting profit-driving trends, and generating an instant social media “trending” status for the retailer. As we have now of course seen demonstrated across myriad platforms, the power of social media to share, influence, and market is invaluable. But back in my youth of course it wasn’t even a “thing” and thus my “father teaching moment” became an embarrassing and epic fail of a man living in the wrong generation and not even knowing it.
AKA the generation of “Digital Immigrants” who somehow managed to live and survive before social media changed the world forever.
Those of us who fall into this population pack are, however, not irredeemably irrelevant. We are historically poignant in the mere fact that we will be the only generation to have known the world before, during, and after millennial technology became globally main-(and live)-stream and accessible to all. So, we are actually quite valuable. And important in a way no other generation may ever be. We were born and raised in real “real life” familial, commercial, social, academic, and entertainment, rather than virtual, worlds. We relied on organic bids-either extended or accepted-to create new relationships and build covalent bonds. Sure, it was sometimes scary to do, and sometimes it didn’t work out the way we’d hoped, but we did it anyway because we are social animals, naturally crave relationships, bonds, and tribes, and there was no social media behind which to hide, isolate, post, boast, swagger, while constantly worrying that the digital affirmations we craved and coveted from our online “friends” and “followships” were real, and not “fake.”
When we were bored out of our minds, we used our imagination to cultivate activities and distractions. When we walked down the street, or sat down to wait somewhere- anywhere-we had no screens in which to barricade ourselves from the chance that we would need to interact with anyone around us. We invited and accepted organic bids from connection through reading social cues and body language. There were no “filters” on our bathroom mirrors. Those villainous pores over which our teen eyes poured, and uninvited imperfections which caused us insecurities and angst beyond compare, could not be erased by filters, auto-effects, bunny ears, masks, AR, or even adorable Bitmojis. We just dealt. And, okay, sure, sometimes tried to ditch school to avoid any and all potential public humiliation in response to catastrophic clobberings in the teen acne wars.
We played record albums and board games with friends, made eye contact without xanax, resolved conflicts (sometimes albeit really poorly) face-to-face, wrote real love letters (sometimes also albeit really poorly!) on paper, hung out at local malls, sat in brick and mortar classrooms with classmates, and unless some other issue was at play, lived in “present presence.” We were forced to engage and talk with one another. We played out dating rituals based upon ambiguously-defined baseball plate references no one even really understood for sure. Our exposure to external world events was regulated to what traditional and trusted (sometimes yes, perhaps too blindly) media, educators and parents, and sometimes no-good misinformed friends shared with us.
But then the so called “digital age” arrived, delivering with it wonderous and fantastical tech-driven toys we had perhaps only previously awed over in comic books, science fiction movies, 007’s secret spy toy kits-or perhaps merely our own dreams and imaginations. Hindsight being the proverbial 20/20, (and not yet augmented by smart glasses), we probably should have been more prepared. Be that as it may, we happen to all be alive right now at an historically exceptional moment which will never occur again. Digital Immigrant and Digital Native coexist for the only moment in all of time ever. We also now realize that most of us were pretty much super ill-prepared for this phenomenon, but of course, at this point there is no use “Monday Morning Quarterbacking” exactly what generated the first millennial revolution-or our responses to it. Although certainly not on the DEFCON 1 cataclysmic level of some unexpected rogue comet crashing into Earth, this event nonetheless, just might be proposed by future generations as an equally defining-if not globally mortiferous-moment in our history, which also potentially forever alters our planet and those who inhabit it.
Dr. Don Grant
Founder/CEO and Executive Director, (un)BOOT Camp and RESOLUTIONS TEEN CENTER
Dr. Don Grant is an internationally award-winning media psychologist, researcher, addiction specialist, Co-Founder/Executive Director of Resolutions Teen Center, (an...