Adults love to obsess about how the perils of modernity are ruining the younger generations. (They can’t help themselves. It’s how they keep their minds off all the gray hair, crows feet, and erectile dysfunction that stalk the land of the middle aged.) Nowadays, a favorite fixation is whether youth can be taught to responsibly navigate our wired world. Can immature minds grasp the privacy issues that become more complicated with each new networking tool? How can we make teens understand the foolishness of putting drunken, naked spring break pics on Facebook for the entire world (and future potential employers) to ogle? Is social networking creating a generation of scorching narcissists? Will sexting turn our youth into a pack of mindless, drooling sociopaths?
I’m sorry, but from where I sit, it ain’t the young’uns having notable trouble setting barriers and using technology with any level of discretion, reserve, or common sense. Rather, every time you turn around, an ostensible grown-up has done something monumentally stupid like sexting his mistress, sending filthy instant messages to strapping young House pages, or tweeting about his congressional delegation’s classified landing in Iraq. And how about that moron in North Carolina who googled the many and varied ways to kill a person in the days before killing his wife? Now there’s a guy in need of a lesson on the dangers of interconnectivity. This is not to say that younger users don’t do plenty of stupid stuff as well. But, as often as not, it’s the older generations that clearly can’t be trusted to navigate even basic media and networking tools.
Just last week, two unrelated news stories drove this point home for me. The first and more respectable involved a new Pew study showing that most American teens, usually early adapters of tech innovations, have no use for Twitter. And within the slim 8 percent of “online teens” who do use Twitter, most are tracking the goings-on of celebrities. (A related question found that 19 percent of online adults “use Twitter or similar services,” although the different wording of the question makes an apples-to-apples comparison impossible.)
The WaPo’s article on the Pew report cited similar findings from other researchers. In a survey of college freshmen last year, Eszter Hargittai of Northwestern University found that 10 percent had used Twitter once and never gone back, while only 4 percent used it regularly. “They’re more interested in friends and not keeping in touch with the world more broadly,” she explained. And while adults often assume teens are desperate for the spotlight, privacy is a big concern, said Lynn Schofield Clark of the University of Denver. “Twitter seems to take away the control they want,” she observed. “There is a growing awareness of privacy levels.” Overwhelmingly, members of the younger generation prefer friend-focused tools like Facebook, where they have more control over their info and interactions.
How’s that for irony? It turns out that all those middle-aged goobers tweeting about their sock drawers in a scramble to prove they’re one of the cool kids are in fact proving how uncool they really are: Tech’s true early adapters are more discriminating and have little interest in blasting their every thought to a vast cloud of strangers. So explain to me again which demographic group is the more attention-starved and narcissistic?
I was still pondering teens’ underappreciated level of tech maturity when I was smacked in the face by the latest installment of the John-Edwards-Is-a-Pig-and-an-Idiot drama. As it turns out, not only does an Edwards-Rielle Hunter sex tape exist, it is the focus of a legal battle between Hunter and Edwards dogsbody turned sex-scribbler Andrew Young. On February 5, Young was scheduled to appear in a North Carolina court to contest an injunction filed by Hunter, who seeks to prevent dissemination and to regain possession of “a personal video recording that depicted matters of a very private and personal nature.” Depending on who tells it, the tape was either stolen by Young from a hatbox full of Hunter’s very important personal effects or discarded by Hunter when she fled the North Carolina home the Youngs had been renting for her in late 2007. Either way, Young somehow found himself in possession of a home movie of the sort that drives the tabloids to stuff filthy wads of cash into one’s trousers. He is willing to fight Hunter for it (perhaps even eager, seeing as how he has a book to promote), and, at this point, there’s not much Edwards can do but sit back and watch his once-golden image gather even more layers of slime.
Now, admittedly, allowing oneself to be videotaped banging one’s pregnant mistress (Hunter is reportedly heavy with child in the tape) while in the thick of a presidential campaign may not be as cutting edge as emailing a mistress photos of one’s penis. (Go Tiger!) But it is no less jaw-droppingly stupid, not to mention naïve about where even marginally interesting footage tends to wind up these days. (I’m now taking bets on how long before bits of this masterwork hit YouTube.) So unless Edwards expects us to believe his romp was recorded without his knowledge (one of the few claims of innocence he hasn’t yet attempted), we must assume he is a complete fool. At least when young hotties like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian make sex tapes, they manage a career boost from it.
My sense is that many grown-ups grab for media toys and new technologies to feel hip and to display how cutting-edge and non-obsolete they are. But adults clearly can’t handle their tech, be it tweets, texts, emails, or even relatively old-fashioned video. It’s not really their fault: They didn’t grow up in a wired world and so lack the basic feel for where limits should be drawn. The resulting awkwardness is a little like allowing a bunch of folks who’ve never seen a gun before to dash off into the woods with a Bushmaster semi-automatic. Without responsible, non-adult supervision, someone is going to get hurt.
Michelle Cottle is a senior editor of The New Republic.