Standing idly behind the counter of a fried seafood restaurant in a small beach town, I smile falsely (as this summer job requires) as a pale boy who looks about eleven wanders inside. He shuffles up to the counter and slowly peels his nose away from his iPhone. He stares at the empty countertop, “May I please have a small french fry?” I can barely hear him, but I put his order through. My boss and the other fry cooks who stand behind me shake their heads as they throw raw potato wedges into boiling grease. When I give the boy his order, he hugs it to his chest, with his eyes glued to his device, and returns to the streets outside.
“Kids these days!” exclaims my boss as he worries, probably, about his own two-year-old, “They have no social skills because of that technology!”
This anger towards technology for ruining interpersonal communication is common. It is coupled with a nostalgia for the past, when kids would opt to spend their time playing baseball and riding bikes with each other. We see these trends not just among cynical, concerned parents, but also among our peers. Our classmates, roommates, coworkers, and friends turn to their little siblings and the students they tutor through PULSE, condemning them for using Snapchat and recalling their own experiences of having to ask their mom for permission to go on the one household computer.
“Kids have no empathy!” “Youth sports are dying!” “No social skills!” Such tag-lines are ironically posted and retweeted by these critics, the same people who skim articles that cite unfinished, unpublished studies. While there might be a sliver of truth to these catastrophic fears for the future, including a generation ridden with video game addiction and shorter attention spans, there is a prevailing positive impact of the internet surge on youth: it connects kids to the world.
While I myself had an ideal childhood (according to these internet critics), playing softball after school and catching frogs with my bare hands, I was simultaneously ignorant of our country’s violent presence in Iraq. Today, I still fail to fully understand this conflict, and it feels like a piece of distant history, as I was entirely passive and uninvolved in the current events of those years. Contrarily, the internet allows kids nowadays to be active participants in the history that is being crafted around them. It allows them to see, understand, and feel the maladies of this country unlike ever before.
This connectivity easily scares us, as we strive to protect kids from swear words on the radio and inappropriate TV shows, but we have reached an era where we can no longer protect them from the reality of gun violence, racism, homophobia, war, and the many other flavors of hatred that we are forced to taste every day. So as opposed to cultivating a generation marked by naivety, the internet actually educates kids about world affairs and then empowers them to act upon injustice.
Many young elementary and middle school students see and understand the hateful, polarized political climate of our country, and they innocently wonder why we can’t simply allow hardworking immigrants to join us, Black citizens to feel protected by law enforcement, and students to know they are safe from gun violence at school. Whether it's the students in Roxbury from my PULSE placement, or my nieces and nephews who rarely set foot out of small-town South Carolina, I hear the same chorus: The world can be better.
They know this because in their devices, right alongside videos of police brutality, there are also messages of love, diversity, and inclusion. Open Youtube, Tumblr, Musical.ly, or any other social platform and you will quickly understand that the boy who wandered into that fried food shop isn’t suffering from some epidemic of failed social interaction; rather, he is thriving from a new, worldly platform of communication in ways that kids from the early 2000s and before were not privy to.
The internet isn’t forcing the youth of today to become introverted and antisocial. Notably, there are still plenty of outspoken, social, and extroverted kids who avidly participate in theatre, sports, and other activities. For those kids who are afflicted with social anxiety, the internet provides new modes of self-expression, offering a way to stay connected to distant friends, and allowing people, for the first time, to fully understand the vastness of the world.
The reason “kids these days” are always on their devices is because kids are now able to step outside whatever physical community encloses them, and they are able to learn things inaccessible to them by teachers, parents, siblings, or bullies. They have the power to explore their sexuality, their race, their interests, and themselves at large so much earlier than other generations were able to. And although parents and older siblings view this exposure as terrifying, it is the future. We are rapidly moving into a technologically global community, and these youngsters are our future teachers, senators, CEOs, and active citizens. It is their empathy and understanding of diversity that will drive them to heal the narrow-mindedness of today's worldly climate. Just because we didn't have Angry Birds when we were kids, we have no right to shame today's youth or hold them back from fulfilling the well-rounded, progressive roles they are stepping into.