Beyond the specific areas in which you need to prepare your children for this crazy new world and, as I have shown, in which popular culture and technology is not helping you, there is an overriding way you can best ready your children for what lies ahead. You need to prepare them for life. You must ensure that your children see life as it really is, not as it is presented to them by popular culture and through its many technological conduits. Only by doing so can you ensure that your children develop a perspective about the unmediated (no screens) world that is accurate and that will allow them to thrive in it.
Unfortunately, popular culture presents children with a "false mirror" from which they view life; it doesn't give them an exact true characterization of what real life is. For example, so-called reality TV holds no resemblance to actual real life. The cable and local news, which live by the axiom, "if it bleeds, it leads" and thrives on sensationalism, offers you a distorted view of danger in your children's lives. Technology offers your children an incomplete depiction of life because it restricts what can be experienced and offers limited options from which to choose.
With too much exposure to popular culture and excessive use of technology, your children may develop a disconnect between how they perceive life and the way life actually is. For example, due to the popularity of reality TV shows (which is watched by millions of children) and the ease of becoming a "celebrity" on YouTube, the perceived distance of fame grows closer and seemingly more attainable. In fact, research has shown that children today indicate that wealth and celebrity are their top life goals.
Reality TV shows such as The Bachelor and The Bachelorette and the abundance of romantic comedies in film give children the impression that love can be found easily and in a matter of weeks when, in real life, true love is difficult and usually takes much longer. At the other end of the relationship continuum, television shows like Happily Divorced and the Real Housewives franchise give the impression that divorce is a mere inconvenience when, in reality, it is usually quite painful for adults and children alike.
Without a realistic representation, your children will develop a "bizarro" view of life and, as a result, will act on the world not as it is, but rather as popular culture and technology has shown it to be, however erroneous that may be. The result? Your children will be left unprepared for real life.
To help clarify what I'm talking about, let's first look at some fundamental differences between life as depicted by popular culture and technology and the life that exists for most children in the real world. Life, as seen, for example, on television and in film and magazines, communicates to children that an easy life, immediate gratification, and entitlement are rights and success without effort is the rule rather than the exception. Real life, in contrast, can be difficult, rewards are often years away, and people don't always get what they deserve.
Additionally, accomplishments are gained only through hard work and perseverance, and, even then, there are no guarantees. Yet, for children who have unrestricted and unguided exposure to popular culture, its depiction of life is the life that they come to believe exists. These children are in a rude awakening when confronted by a life that, for most of us, bears little resemblance to that portrayed in the many forms of media.
Now let's consider the differences between life as experienced through the lens of technology and so-called real life which happens away from technology. First, digital life is, by definition, virtual, meaning any experience created by technology with the aim of replicating actual experience. The problem with online reality is that, though it shares similarities to real life, it is missing important elements. For example, email and text exchanges can be a useful means of communication, but they lack visual input (so important to effective communication), the nuance of facial expressions and body language, and clear emotional content. In contrast, real life is, well, real in its fullest meaning of the word, that is to say, meaningful, relevant, and complete.
Second, mediated life is limited by the technology that makes it possible. There is always something between your children and their experiences, whether a text message or a Wii sports game, and, as I just noted, a great deal is missed in this mediated experience. Conversely, real life is unmediated, meaning children experience life directly and immediately with all of the accompanying benefits and messiness, both essential for your children to learn how to navigate life.
Dr. Susan Greenfield, a noted British neuroscientist, has articulated some compelling concerns related to the mediated nature of technology. She believes that, for all of the appearance of freedom in new technology, it is actually a largely closed system comprised of a series of options from which children are forced to choose. In contract, she advocates for "free-range" inquiry in which there are no limits set on the choices that children have. Dr. Greenfield suggests that the fixed quality of technology may inhibit the development of creativity which is, by its very nature, open and undefined. Relatedly, she argues that the emergence of linguistic and visual imagination will also be hindered because of the limited and prescribed opportunities that are presented with technology. Additionally, children have little reason, incentive, or need to be creative when linguistic and visual images are supplied to them. Dr.
Greenfield is also critical of the "contracted, brutalised" writing skills inherent in Twitter and text messages that lack the vocabulary and structure essential for sophisticated thinking and expression.
She sees that many forms of technology, including video games and Facebook, place too great an emphasis on process and the satisfaction of goals without consideration of context and personal relevance. Particularly with violent video games, for example, action is often without values, meaning, or consequences. Yet, it is that narrative and individual significance that provides children with the moral framework to place experiences in a realistic and meaningful perspective.
At an even deeper level, Dr. Greenfield concludes that, because children's brains are so malleable, the substantial changes in the world in which they are growing up will not only affect their thinking and behavior, but there will also be significant alterations in children's brains neurochemically and structurally. She cites, as an example, how dopamine, the influential neurochemical that seems to be significantly affected by technology, has the effect of reducing activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area most associated with so-called executive functioning including attention, self-control, abstract thinking, planning, and decision making, all attributes that are essential for healthy development in children. Making matters more challenging, its late development makes it easy to see why anything that interferes with its healthy growth could have substantial and generally negative ramifications for children.
At a more visceral level, online life lacks the complexity and, well, untidiness of real life. It seems too safe, too clean, too controllable. There is the anonymity of blog comments, the false intimacy of online relationships, the ease with which you can hit Delete or Exit whenever it's convenient. Digital life enables children to keep real life at arm's length, for example, teenagers who break up with their boyfriends or girlfriends with text messages or a Facebook posting. Without the immersion in real life, they miss out on the richness of what life has to offer -- its joys and thrills and its trials and tribulations.
Real life, by contrast, is inherently complicated and messy. There are the sensations, emotions, thoughts, and behaviors over which children only have so much control. Real life is undefined, unstructured, and unrestricted. There is frustration, sadness, anger, and fear. There is also excitement, contentment, and love. Real life encompasses the fullest and richest of experiences, unfiltered and uncensored. When you ensure that your children experience this unmediated life, you allow them to learn and practice the skills necessary to navigate that sometimes chaotic life. Without those skills, children will be unprepared for real life as they progress through childhood and into adulthood.
As a parent, you think about real life and your first reaction may very well be that you want to protect your children from such disorder and potential hurt. Giving them ready and unrestricted access to popular culture and technology is one way to safeguard them from real life. Yet, to do so would be to act in your own best interests -- you hate to see your kids struggle and feel bad! -- but I'm sure that, when you're able to step back from life just a bit, you see that it would be a great disservice to your children. When you allow your children to absorb themselves fully in real life and guide them through its many ups and downs, you fill their development with texture and depth of experience that simply can't be replicated in the online world.