- Family and Parenting
How the Internet and Online World has Changed our Family Life
When I was young and still living at home with my parents, there was no internet and no world wide web. We did have a computer, that had arrived in our home during the mid-eighties, but its functions were extremely basic when compared to the technology of today. Even when I moved out of my parent's home and into my first property with my partner, there were no such facilities (although I think perhaps both had been invented by then, but I certainly knew of no one with this technology). At first, we didn't even have a computer, although I couldn't have cared less. When I arrived home from work, I spent my evenings watching TV and reading books. Sometimes I would do some writing - on paper, with a pen. I was perfectly happy with the way things were, and never felt that I needed anything else.
We moved house again in 1997 and it was perhaps the following year that a brand new computer complete with internet facilities appeared (courtesy of my partner's bonus). I found it mildly interesting, although I wasn't that concerned with surfing the web at that time. I mainly used the computer for my writing. There was no such thing as Facebook and the connection was much, much slower. Not only that, but you couldn't use the home phone if someone was online (and at that time, mobile phones were much less popular). Aside from all that, my technical skillls were questionable, to say the least.
Of course, things are very different now. Computers, and the internet, have become a huge part of our daily lives. A large percentage of adults and children would certainly feel a sense of loss if the online world suddenly disappeared from their lives. In fact, children really do seem to need access to the web for their school studies - my son does a large amount of his school work on the computer. Gradually, in a relatively short space of time, so many of us have been quietly addicted to this thing called the internet. Not only that, but many of our children have never known a life without it.
Our Children Have Never Known Life Without the Internet
Because many of our children, mine own included, have never known a life without the sort of technology we have today, it also means that they have never really experienced the childhood that their parents had. Some things might be the same, but much has changed. In my house, I see it all too clearly, every day. The ever-present internet, with all it has to offer, has definitely changed family life, whether for the better or for the worse. So, exactly how has the online world altered our lives?
Let me get this straight - I fundamentally believe home computers, together with the internet and world wide web, to be a largely positive addition to our lives. In contrast to past decades, we now have all the information we could want literally at our fingertips (as along as we know how to weed out the good from the bad). We can connect with people from all over the world, instantly and at lightning speed. (It really comes into its own when it comes to keeping in touch with loved ones who have moved away). We can express our opinions more readily (although there can be negatives to that), read consumer reviews and make judgements before making purchases. There is an entire world that can be explored, without even leaving the house. That is very useful, but can also affect life inside our very own homes.
Spending time online is very often a solitary activity - even more so than watching television, which we often do with other people. Thus, it creates a kind of separation in the home, as family members choose to go off and do their own thing, spending less time with each other. Whereas in the past, families were more likely to watch shows together, play games or simply chat, the lure of the internet and all that it offers can send individuals into separate corners of the house. It isn't only children that do this, of course - how often, as adults, do we sneak off to check our emails, have a look at Facebook or whatever else crosses our minds. We might pretend to be present, but whilst we are keeping one eye on our children, the other half of us is somewhere else. Even when we are all together, inside the family home, we are accessing life outside it, which means that at that moment we are not truly living in the here and now. It is not quite the same as doing the ironing whilst our kids play on the floor - ironing is a monotonous task that doesn't claim our attention in quite the same way. Time slips by quickly when we are logged on. It is so easy to lose half an hour or more whilst barely noticing.
Children Now and Children Then....
Aside from the separation that can ensue when family members become obsessed with 'logging on', the instant access offered by the internet means that we are growing less patient. Used to the instant answers that the internet can bring, many of us no longer like waiting when we have a question or want to research something. My eldest son is just like this - he never expects to wait when he wants to look up whatever he's got his mind on. That would be great if it was research for a project or something of the like, but usually it isn't. More often than not, he wants to read reviews of the latest console game or check out merchandise in stores. Sometimes it is a funny video on Youtube - perhaps something one of his school friends told him about. It becomes almost an obsession - he has to look up everything he is interested in and wants to know about, right then and there. Because the information is at the end of his fingertips, he often cannot stop thinking about it until he has looked it up. He is not good at being calm, reflective or simply at chilling out and doing nothing. His mind is never an empty space - because there is always something electronic nearby to fill the quiet gaps. Logging on is one of these - logging on to the laptop, going online on Xbox Live, searching for apps over the internet on his Ipod...
One of the biggest differences I notice about children today, compared to children who did not grow up with the type of ever-present technology that we now have, is their boredom threshold. As a parent, I know a lot of children and I can definitely say that, for much of the time, they do not know how to make their own entertainment. Their minds are not as creative as the minds of children from past generations, who knew how to use their imaginations when there was nothing else at hand. Children today are used to being surrounded by gadgets that offer instant entertainment, without them having to think of their own. What's more, even if they are given ideas, many of today's tech-savvy young people reject 'ancient' forms of entertainment as 'boring' and 'old fashioned'.
When I look back some thirty years ago, I remember being young and seeking independence; playing out with friends; my first trips to the shopping centre without my parents. Getting out there and doing your own thing was a turning point in one's life; a sign that you were growing up. However, now that I am a parent and have a son of about the same age as I was when my friends and I started to seek our independence, I sometimes feel as though I am trying to throw him out of the house. The reason being? Usually, the problem is the device upstairs in his bedroom; the lure of the Xbox and the online world of Xbox live.
With online gaming facilities, todays' children can play and talk with their friends without even leaving the house. This changes the way children play altogether, especially older children. 'Proper' socialising with friends is exchanged for the cyber alternative. Suddenly, all the best things to do are inside the house, which means that seeking independence by going out and about with friends is becoming less of an attraction. However, it is a poor alternative, as it does not help children to develop and grow emotionally, in quite the same way. Sadly, in many ways and for many children, childhood seems to be missing some of the magic of the past. The kids themselves don't know it (or believe it), of course. They are too caught up in our age of technology to be interested in the things their 'old fashioned' parents used to do.
Lack of Parental Control
The online world also allows children to access material that we, as parents, may not approve of. This means that the ability of a parent to control and monitor the content and opinions which their children are exposed to is perhaps more difficult than it was in the past. The world wide web is so huge that many parents probably aren't even aware of all that it contains. Yes, you can filter out the obvious - mature content, etc. But there is much that goes by unnoticed. Anybody can post content online and a lot of it is not monitored first. A number of times I have caught my child watching cartoon-type videos on Youtube with a pair of headphones stuck to his ears. Fairly innocent, I'd always thought - until one day, when he passes me the headset and says, 'Listen to this, Mum, it's so funny.' So I listen, only to have songs with more than a hint of racism greet my eardrums. Unfortunately, this sort of content is never filtered out. What's more, a child does not have the age-acquired wisdom of an adult needed to assess the 'cartoon'.
So the web - although educational , convenient and limitless in the range of information it contains - can often work against parents who care about the kind of material and subliminal messages their children are introduced to. The internet, resident in most modern homes, can take away some of the control parents have over the way they bring up their children because it is harder than one might assume to prevent them from accessing it unless they are constantly supervised. In the past, kids might have been able to get their hands on material parents deemed unsuitable, but it was less easy to obtain compared to the easy accessibility of the internet.
Parents often moan about the amount of time children spend on computers, but we have to take a look at ourselves as well. After all, children love to mimic their elders - can we really expect children to act like their peers in the 'good old days' if every time they turn around, there we are logged on on our laptops. Technology in the family home is great - none of us really want to go back to the time when there was no internet; no computers. Now that we have experienced all that the online world can offer, it would be hard to revert back for most of us. However, all this technology can certainly change the way families act and relate to each other. A family sitting apart, all logged on in their own little cyber worlds is never going to feel as bonding as sitting round the table playing a favourite board game or game of cards. Once upon a time, families made their own entertainment together, because there was little else to distract them. What's more, if we don't make time for activities that are truly shared, then we will not have the same kind of memories to look back on as those who have gone before us. You know the old saying - 'everything in moderation'.