Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, Pinterest. Everywhere I go, I am buffeted by references to cutting-edge websites, the latest iPhone apps and our brave new digital world. But what's out there for the over-50 set, and do we really need to fully embrace modern technology?
First, a confession: While I've always loved learning, I've never been a whiz at technology, and as I get older, my automatic reaction to the new digital landscape has generally been, "I can't." Frankly, as I age, I feel more resistant to learning unfamiliar skills and changing my habits in general, and I experience an almost visceral physical aversion when some bright young thing tells me, "It will only take a minute to download it" or "It's so easy."
But while it's natural to have these fears, I believe it's a mistake to succumb to them. If we want to remain vital as we age, we should fight against the internal barriers we erect and drive over those mental speed bumps. And that's true for everything, whether it's up-to-date technology or learning how to change a tire or refinish a table. I have friends who are proud of being "dinosaurs," horrified at the idea of sharing their lives online and bemoaning the loss of privacy. And I suppose if you're content with your life, you may see no reason to change. But does it really make sense to live in the world that was, rather than the world to come?
I'm not saying people need to be online constantly or look at Buzzfeed every day. And there is certainly a treasured place in our lives for quiet contemplation, going for long walks, gardening, traveling and being off the grid. But the online world can be a lifeline for many of us, particularly women who may have let their friendships and professional connections slide while raising their children.
Just in the past week, I added three connections on LinkedIn, one of whom gave me a business idea, lunched with an old friend I hadn't seen in years after we reconnected on Facebook, and launched Google Maps to find an alternate route when I found myself stuck in horrendous traffic. By embracing technology, we can enhance our lives in so many ways -- getting reacquainted with old friends, finding an interest group, learning about new disciplines and possibly even parlaying our skills into a new job. And there's even the possibility we can avoid the trap of being judged obsolete or invisible because of our age; after all, since nobody knows how old you are on the Internet, maybe you can craft a robust, feisty and experienced digital alter ego that mirrors your inside self, rather than being pigeonholed because of your chronological age or the number of wrinkles on your face.
But there's another reason we have to understand the sheer reach, scope and enormity of the digital revolution: our children and grandchildren. I was recently at a panel discussion where Eric Schmidt, the Executive Chairman of Google, said, not entirely facetiously, that he would love a system whereby anything posted online by someone 17 and under got wiped out when they turned 18. But that's not going to happen. We need to have serious meaningful conversations with our children and grandchildren at an early age (I've heard of two-year olds asking for iPhones and iPads) about the dangers of posting inappropriate pictures or comments or giving out personal information online, because whatever you put out there can haunt you forever. But if we don't understand the technology and if we don't take the time to navigate the digital world ourselves, how can we guide our children? Relying on protective software or parental controls or uninformed platitudes is simply not enough.
Moreover, we have to take a more nuanced approach to gaming and online behavior. In the past, I frequently carped to my children that they couldn't possibly be focused on homework or reading, because so many digital interruptions were scrolling across their computer screen and their phones were constantly buzzing with incoming messages. But we need to fine-tune our message to be effective. For example, research has shown that video and computer games are not necessarily bad: Early exposure to the Internet and gaming has positive outcomes, including better vision, ability to focus, spatial cognition and accuracy. So telling your kids that playing World of Warcraft will stunt their growth may not be the best approach. However, there are numerous studies showing that multitaskers do not do better at concentration or exams or academic work. Maybe you could show your kids a funny Youtube video about it to get your point across (I love Paolo Cardini's TED talk) or initiate a dinner table discussion about how your kids feel about multitasking. While I think the jury's still out on the long-term ramifications of the Internet and the digital world, it's not going away, and we need to change our mindset and become more sophisticated in our criticisms if we want them to have an impact.
As for me, I've decided it's better to embrace this brave new world rather than rail against it or fear it. In fact, I just used Doodle for the first time to plan a meeting and I set up a Twitter account this past week and it really wasn't hard at all. But I'm not completely there yet -- I still break into a sweat whenever anyone mentions Apple iCloud!
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