‘It’s plain as day to me. These services are killing people… and causing people to kill themselves.’ Tim Kendall, A Social Dilemma, Netflix
‘Mummy, I don’t know how to say this but everyone born before the year two thousand is so… so… You just don’t get it.’
He’s right. I don’t get it. I don’t get how spending every waking hour possible on TikTok and YouTube is even vaguely enjoyable, let alone acceptable. Quite aside from potential threats from trolls or paedophiles, I simply don’t get the pranks, the jokes, the inanity. There are some YouTubers more palatable than others (showing experiments or cooking) but, on the whole, the fast imagery, the high-pitched voices, the laughs and OMGs and WTFs drive me just a little bit crazy. And I don’t think I’m alone. To many of us pre-2000ers, whole lives are seemingly being swallowed up by these vacuous videos and never-ending addictive games: Minecraft, Roblox, and, worse, Fortnite. This is the new reality. And I’m not even going to mention Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all the chat-chat-chat apps. WTF. Welcome to parenting in the twenty-first century.
We older adults keep trying to warn them, the ‘Glow Kids’, as Nicholas Kardaras, calls them. He writes that ‘an ever-increasing amount of clinical research correlates screen tech with psychiatric disorders like ADHD, addiction, anxiety, depression, increased aggression and even psychosis. Perhaps most shocking of all, recent brain-imaging studies conclusively show that excessive screen exposure can neurologically damage a young person’s developing brain in the same way that cocaine addiction can.’
I wish I’d known that eleven years ago when I proudly showed off my iPad. For sure, sometime in the future, these devices and games will come with a warning. Steve Jobs (as I recently discovered) didn’t allow his kids his most ingenious creations until they were sixteen. After all, their brains are still developing until they are twenty-five. Most of Google employees and other Silicon Valley engineers do not allow their kids screens until they are older. And no social media. Waldorf schools (with the belief that kids should not have a computer until they can build one) are becoming more popular. Us pre-2000ers are worried, but unless you have money and a Waldorf school nearby, you are caught in the storm. The i-Genie is out of the bottle and juggling algorithms to reel in the kids, million upon million. And we are left desperately trying to grab hold of their hand as it clutches the mouse or phone.
It may be an exaggeration to say that social media and never-ending games are killing young people but I have no doubt about the addictive nature of those screens. I have seen the way the kids clutch at them. They drop everything, but never their phones. I have seen the reactions when it is time to switch off the internet. They scream. They raise their fists. Pick up a knife or an ex-caliber rifle. Their brains are becoming like the computer games they play: they find shortcuts, they learn how to jump, they learn when to fire.
As Tristan Harris says on A Social Dilemma, ‘I mean we can do genetic engineering and develop new kind of human beings in the future but, realistically speaking, you are living inside of a hardware, a brain that is millions of years old and then there is this screen and, on the opposite side of the screen, there are these thousands of engineers and supercomputers that have goals that are different to your goals and so who’s going to win in that game. Who’s going to win?’
We’re not, that’s for sure. They know how to hook the little ones. The kids think they’re winning – even when they die. I believe that people, even little ones, should learn to make their own choices, take responsibility for them, but it is hard to seriously hold them accountable when they are being fed computer-refined algorithms, offered bright colours and flashing lights, sounds that resound, action shots that carry the player into this other much more exciting alternative realities and rewards that hit the dopamine big time.
I have seen little lives being taken over and I feel powerless to stop it. The dog isn’t walked, the bed left unmade, mess everywhere. The bicycle rusts in the garage. The football makes a rare appearance. Why kick a ball when you can play FIFA – and win. Dishes? What are they? Homework? Hate school. Teachers are stupid. A whole generation is using their phones as a digital dummy. They come home from school and they are on their devices. Where we live, they are on their devices in school, as well as out. Not to mention the bus and cars, to and from where they are going. Try limiting it. Good luck.
What about books? At least read sometimes. Are you stupid? Who reads books? Books are for idiots. Books are rubbish. Actually, shit. More than two thousand years of written literature only for idiots? Charles Dickens? Rubbish. Dostoevsky? Shakespeare? Whothefuck? Tolstoy? Jane Austen? Edgar Allen Poe, Lewis Stevenson, Mary Shelley? George Orwell? Blank, blank, blank. Okay, Harry Potter? Boring. Roald Dahl? Okay. Philip Pullman? Not real. Diary of a Wimpy Kid. A shrug. Greg’s mum has banned the internet at the weekend. She’s also a pre-2000er.
But books, of course, are not shit. These kids, this generation, are being manipulated. Yet, maybe, just maybe, there is hope. Socrates also hated the written word. He also said we would become stupid. Our memories would atrophy. Are these 2020’s kids re-righting or unwriting a wrong? By returning to an oral tradition are they reclaiming the Word. Even better, these platforms are demoncratic – I mean democratic. There is a societal democratisation going on. The BBC is out. ITV is out. Channel 4 is out. CNN is out. In fact, all TV is out. That belongs to us twentieth century idiots. Even Netflix is teetering. The kids are choosing their own heroes. They choose who they want to watch. And their heroes are not held up by any institution. Anyone can be a YouTuber, an influencer. That’s way ahead of us. Our rebellion was piercings, punk rock and listening to Radio Caroline. Anarchy. But we couldn’t choose our own channels. We couldn’t choose our own Media. We couldn’t be that Media. Imagine.
So relax. They’ll be fine. This is the next generation. They are smart. These are the guys who are going to be working with AI. Their war games are not real. Unlike ours. They are finding their own communities, their own villages, international, inclusive. Maybe they’ll share their real worlds one day too. Zoom-pals. And, surely, it’s better than eleven-year-olds puffing on fags on street corners, drinking booze, roaming the streets. They were the dummies, the pacifiers, of our generation.
Parenting in the 2020s is really tough. We are different. Our world was different. But who’s to say which is the better world? Maybe our reality was harder. So much has changed in the last forty years. Traditional structures have been torn down. Fathers do not rule the roost. Authority is questioned. Cars drive themselves. We are all products of our generation. This time literally. But if we are to understand these kids of the 2020s and perhaps lead them away from the virtual world occasionally and show them the old world of books and films, and quality documentaries, we need to stay connected with them. And hope, in the meantime, the lawmakers and supercomputers will start making healthier choices for our children.
‘I like your books though, Mummy. And that fisherman story.’
Hemmingway’s The Old Man and The Sea. Don’t give up. Keep reading to them.