In the ever changing world of technology, one worry that forever dogs the heels of the next best thing is: When will I become obsolete? In 1920 only 35 percent of American households had a telephone. (It would take nearly 20 years for most of those homes to have a radio as well.) Before 2020, that number had risen to 99 percent. A hundred years of ingenuity and invention thrust humans into the technological age, ready or not.
Growing up as a middle-class kid in New York City, I remember our household electronics with a sentimentality that belies the frustration and incipient rage I felt when manipulating them. I remember well, sitting on the floor within arm’s reach of the TV dial so that my parents wouldn’t have to stand up to change the channel (remotes weren’t standard just yet) and playing on our original Nintendo console, enjoying the prehistoric 8-bit graphics.
My father purchased our first computer when I was about 8 years old. My parents set it up on the small desk in their bedroom next to a dot matrix printer and told us it was the future. When I left for college 10 years later, I had my personal computer in tow as well as my pride and joy: a brand new Samsung flip phone — a relic so outdated now that anyone born in this century wouldn’t even know what to do with it.
Technology continued to advance and, like many in my generation, I developed a love-hate relationship with it. Computers and phones became an invasive species, chipping away at privacy and in-person interactions. I developed a proficiency with my devices out of necessity, but maintained a distrustful distance from them — backing up my work and photos with hard copies rather than “on disk,” preferring phone calls and letters to email. At every step of the way, I resisted change, until finally there was no other choice. All at once grown up, I was dependent on my computer and my smartphone for nearly everything. A flat screen TV with a thousand channels sits on my living room wall, a Kindle loaded with dozens of books sits on my nightstand.
I had become a slave to my devices.
In an effort to stem the tide, I pulled back. I resolved that I would not raise my children being constantly inundated with digital media. I limited their television access, refused any discussion of cell phones or game consoles, and fought bitter, losing battles with grandparents who purchased tablets.
Long before circumstance necessitated it, my children begged endlessly for “screen time,” doing their very best impressions of Dickensian parish boys when I denied them their fix.
“Please mom, may we have some more?” they asked. Little by little I gave in, sure to temper their media consumption to just shy of (what I naively thought were) the terrifying quantities they desired.
Despite my noble efforts, the technology trickled in. In retrospect, I couldn’t be more thankful that it did because when disaster struck, my children were ready. They were able to adapt to our brave new world with an alacrity I never imagined.
Their ability to absorb and manipulate their devices was rapid and impressive. We dug out the Kindles their grandparents had given them years before and attempted to set them up for school. I sat for hours after my children went to bed, coming to terms with my own inadequacy. I realized my error when the kids awoke in the morning. They were the heirs of the computer age; the sleek, elegant, Star Trek-like technology they had exposed to since birth, a far cry from the lumbering gray boxes my brother and I huddled around in our youth.
They got the hang of Zoom school quickly enough to troubleshoot for me when I ran into problems. They are not merely surviving in this world, they are thriving.
Need to change your Zoom background? Ask my 10 year old. Having trouble sharing a Google Doc? My third grader has you covered. Even my kindergartener can get herself in and out of meetings. Being schooled by my 4 year old on how to load his teacher’s YouTube videos was simultaneously a new high and a new low for me.
I view my children with a sense of detached amusement as they develop preferences, saying things like, “Ugh, I have to take class on the Asus!” and, “The new gaming mouse has far too much sensitivity for when I’m in class.” When they gather around our proverbial water cooler bemoaning a “glitchy” class or teacher who hasn’t figured out how to mute annoying classmates, I have to hide my smiles.
I was concerned at first that school going remote and social distance would make my children feel lonely and isolated, but in that respect, too, I worried over nothing. They have leapfrogged over these problems entirely. My older boys independently plan “multiplayer dates” where they “meet up” with friends and explore the worlds of various video games together (on their new PS4). My younger children have Zoom playdates and ballet classes and video calls with family and friends.
While I still feel uneasy that my children’s five hours a week of screen time has now become a daily minimum, it would be foolish not to see the value they are gleaning. What I viewed as a hopeless time sink, they view as life itself, and now more than ever, they aren’t wrong.
Watching my children meld so seamlessly into the future shames and inspires me to follow suit. The world is not what it once was and the sooner I allow myself to come to terms with that, the better. I am determined to embrace this new reality and plunge into it with an opened mind.
At least if I have any questions, my kids are here to answer them.
L.E. Nizhnikov is a fiction writer who lives in Silver Spring, where she is a stay-at-home mother of five.