When we first sat down with area parents to talk about the challenges of raising Generation Z, we were thinking about all the factors that might give them anxiety: finding the right school, living in a good neighborhood, giving their children access to the best pediatric care—the kinds of things that influence your decision to live where you live. Along with these anxieties was something new, something wholly unique to this generation: how and when to introduce their children to the digital realm. The days of kids playing unsupervised down the street from their homes are largely over. Now, children are left to their own devices—literally, as screens have entered nearly every part of daily life. We talked to a few local families to see how they’re handling these new questions. We also caught up with parenting instructors at the Cambridge Center for Families and Parenting Journey to talk about other concerns for the parents of Cambridge and Somerville.
Who, exactly, is Generation Z?
We first started naming generations after World War II. The period of peace allowed Americans to resume their lives, and for many that meant having children. The shear synchronicity of this generation’s births earned the name common to all of us: Baby Boomers. Since then we’ve seen the cultural shift brought on by Generation X and the rise of the Millennials. Now, we’re ushering in the next group, Generation Z, the most technologically integrated kids to walk the earth. The boundaries are a little fuzzy–this generational stuff isn’t an exact science–but the kids we’re talking about were born around the mid-2000s through today.
Generation Z has many names, many of them defined by the technological precedence into which they’ve been born. Monikers like iGeneration, Net Gen, Gen Wii and Gen Tech all set out to describe a group of children whose lives are technologically integrated from birth, though few do it quite so well as Digital Natives. The term was coined in a 2001 paper by Marc Prensky, an education writer and consultant. The rest of us, those who came before Generation Z, are Digital Immigrants—we are coming to this plane as foreigners and must learn the digital language. Digital Natives, on the other hand, are fluent. Even so, just when to bring electronics into a child’s life is a concern on the minds of many parents.
“I know some people say, ‘This generation, they’re born digital, they’ll never know any different, and therefore don’t worry so much, don’t have that anxiety,’” says Rekha Murthy, a mother of two young children. Murthy is immersed in media. She oversees digital distribution at PRX in Cambridge and completed her thesis at MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program. “I get that some of what I feel is probably just any historical anxiety about new technology … I get that some of this is my own folklore, but it’s instinct too.”
Murthy’s two children are three years old and nine months old, which means one of them still gets no screentime. She says that the decision to limit their interaction with electronics so early in life is important from both an emotional and neurological standpoint. In 2011, the American Association of Pediatrics released new guidelines about young children and screentime. While they recommend limits on screentime for all age groups, they strongly advocate for restricting screentime completely for kids under the age of two. In a report they released with the guidelines, they found that electronic media can affect a child’s brain development. This media can be entertaining, but even videos marketed as educational can’t compare to playtime where children are encouraged to use their imaginations and problem solve. Screentime can also adversely affect sleeping habits and mood. So until their children are two years old, parents like Murthy are keeping screens out of their children’s lives. After that? It gets a little trickier.
“They have since become totally infatuated with anything with a screen,” says Jessica Alpert Silber, who lives in Somerville. Her twins will be three this summer. Like Murthy, she kept screens away from her kids until they were two, at which point she and her husband slowly started introducing cartoons and other media to their son and daughter. Alpert Silber and her husband try to keep their kids’ screentime to less than an hour a day and emphasize that it’s a privilege. But she’s been approached while in public for letting her kids play on her phone.
“I had someone came up to me and say, ‘Oh, we had coloring books in our day.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, this is the modern day coloring book,’” she says.
Before Alper Silber had children, though, she says she underappreciated the value of having a screen for children to interact with. Things can get pretty hectic when you’re at a restaurant with twin toddlers. “I was that person that was like, ‘Come on people, how hard is it to converse and keep your kids calm?’ Well you know what? It’s really hard. I had no idea what I was talking about,” he says.
The problem, of course, isn’t just how parents are letting their children use technology. The rest of us might be digital immigrants, but we live here nonetheless. With the proliferation of smartphones, computers, tablets and gaming consoles, we as a culture are suddenly facing a new set of habits. And we’re teaching those habits—good and bad—to the next generation.
“You have the generation that didn’t grow up with this and are raising children who are now completely [surrounded by technology]. You have to set limits that you never had to before,” says Christine Doucet, Family Support Specialist at the Center for Families in Cambridge. At the center, they run a workshop on media and families to educate parents about healthy habits.
“That is a challenge for parents: What does that mean? What kind of limit do you set? What is the effect of that?” she asks.
While parents are trying to set limitations on how much time their children are spending with screens, some are looking at their own habits and being critical of the way that they’re using technology. Murthy, for example, says she’s trying to train her brain for “slow Internet,” forcing herself to focus her attention on one thing, like reading a long article, in an effort to make her screen use intentional.
“I see it in myself—too much virtualization and the inability to entertain yourself with your mind and your imagination,” she says. That’s something that she wants her children to avoid. “So we do encourage [our oldest] to have a lot of space where she’s not being entertained but she’s entertaining herself.”
Parents aren’t just passing down their habits. These days, our phones can have their own place at the dinner table. “You have the parent with the phone and they check each time [it goes off], or you have the parent who puts the phone [face down], and then they check only one time. And you have the parents who have the phone in the bag,” says Doucet. “And the quality of the relationship with the children changes.”
A study published last year found that parental use of cellphones during meals had an immediate effect on children. They termed use of a device “absorption,” cataloguing the degree to which the use of a device maintained the parent’s attention, and to what degree. What they found is that higher levels of absorption (when caregivers used their phones continuously) led to an escalation in the child or children’s bid for attention. In one case, the study noted, a child tried to pull his caregivers face away from a tablet. She pushed his hands away.
“My hope is that eventually we will know how to use … technology in a positive way,” says Doucet. “I think it is really something that will evolve with time.”
Distraction and development aren’t the only two ways that technology affects the lives of Generation Z. More and more, children are occupying virtual space and learning about social interactions there. Over the past few decades, the physical spaces children occupy alone have become more and more limited. Add to that the jam-packed schedules that kids are now asked to maintain, and it’s easy to see why so much of a child’s life is now pushed online. While older generations might remember being left alone to wander their blocks and play with other neighborhood children, that concept is largely outdated.
“One of the things that we’ve noticed that’s different is there isn’t a physical space for kids to necessarily see their friends in the afternoon or the evening, so when they’re texting or emailing or sending goofy photos, that’s actually a way of unsupervised interaction,” says Sara Zucker of Somerville, whose daughter Raphaella is 12. Zucker grew up in a rural Rhode Island town, where she says she’d finish her homework and then go out and play with the kids in the neighborhood, sans adult supervision.
Something that to her was so natural at the time is unheard of now, except as the controversial “free-range parenting” style.
The thought of letting a kid walk around the city alone is a tense one. No matter your philosophy on how much space to give children, from a cultural standpoint, we have collectively adopted this anxiety over children’s safety, even if it’s subconscious. But increasingly, children are hanging out in virtual spaces, not physical ones. This is brand new territory.
“I think professionals don’t even know yet how to speak about that,” says Doucet. “It’s just the beginning now. I mean, really. That generation.”
While most of us learned about healthy social interactions through in-person trial and error, children are now testing these waters in the oft-impersonal space of the Internet. A bully who does their worst to you on the playground can at least see the hurt on your face. If kids are no longer able to associate their actions to an emotional response, it’s up to parents to figure out how to fill that gap. Except that adults don’t necessarily have this whole Internet thing figured out either.
“There are days where I’m praying that the Internet collapses before [my daughter is] old enough for it to be an issue,” says Murthy. “[The] psychological energy that would be required to constantly maintain vigilance on your own emotional reactions to the things you encounter online, I feel like that’s too much to ask of so many people. And that’s where I feel like I want to really restrain my children’s exposure until they really are old enough to navigate it.”
There’s a lot still to learn about the full effects a technologically integrated society will have on our brains and social lives. We’re on a new frontier, and Generation Z is at the front of it, swiping and Snapchatting their way through childhood. But as the adults–the digital immigrants– fret over the future, nostalgic for a past that was a little less backlit, our digital natives are setting out to be smarter than any generation that came before. Now it’s up to us to try and keep up.