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Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

What Are We Teaching The Social Network Generation?

By Peter DeWitt — October 21, 2011 4 min read
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As I walk around the school building getting to know my students, I love to hear their stories about what they did after school or hear their plans for the upcoming weekend. From first glance, they are much like we were when we were young. They want to hang with their friends and have fun with their families. In other ways, students have changed a great deal simply because of what they can access on a daily basis.

For a long time I used to resist the urge to say that kids have changed since I was young because I didn’t want to make it sound as though I fault them for being different and I certainly didn’t want to admit that I have gotten older.

The reality is that kids have changed. In some aspects they still want the same things we did when we were children. They all want friends and hope to find a passion so they can be successful in the future. However, they are growing up differently because they are exposed to 24/7 media and have instant access to anything they want. They are the Social Network Generation and the Instant Gratification Generation all at the same time and we need to take some responsibility for that because we created this opportunities out of our own needs to get what we want at a quicker pace.

After all, when we were younger we had tape cassettes and had to rewind or fast forward to find the song we wanted. There were usually three good songs on an album that we wanted to buy and we had to buy the whole album and not just the three songs we wanted. We had to wait long periods of time to hear our favorite new song on the radio and act quickly if we wanted to record it on a blank tape.

Waiting didn’t just happen when we listened to music. We had to wait for our favorite television program to come on and could not digitally record it so we could watch it at our leisure. We also had to use a rotary dial phone and if we made a mistake on the seventh digit in the phone number, we had to start all over again. Those days are over...for all of us.

Adults Belong to the Social Network Generation Too

Given all of the new technology that we are inundated with, on what seems like a daily basis, children are not the only ones who overuse technology. Adults have been sucked into the social network generation as well. Between Smartphones, IPods, laptops and IPads we are all plugged in 24/7. Many of us, adults and children, cannot go anywhere without our phones attached to our ears.

How does this affect the relationships we have with our children? When we were younger our parents came home from work and cooked dinner. We sat at our usual spots at the kitchen table. My brother Jody had to sit next to my dad so he could make sure that Jody ate everything on his plate. Dawn, Frank and Trish got to sit the furthest away from our parents because they could be trusted to eat their dinners. I got to sit next to my mom and used Jody as a distraction so I could spread my mashed potatoes around my plate in order to hide the fact that I didn’t eat any of them (it never worked!).

After dinner, we all watched the national news together. There was a ½ an hour of local news and a ½ an hour of national news. If we were lucky, we could watch an hour of television which was usually a drama that lacked all of the graphic violence and risky scenes that we see now on television.

That has all changed. Many adults do not go home right after work. They grab their IPods and go for a run or hop on the elliptical machine. After dinner they take out their laptop and check work e-mail just to make sure they didn’t miss anything. We have gone from our usual spot at the kitchen table to a spot on the couch where we can eat and watch television all the time. Instead of three channels we have access to hundreds. Our children are literally at a point where they do not have to wait for anything because they have instant access. However, adults are in the same situation.

Minivans have built-in DVD players and everyone has their own IPods which minimizes the opportunities to have conversations. We know that conversations are a way for children and adults to learn from one another but we are more concerned with talking with people through e-mail, Twitter and Facebook than we are with having quality face-to-face conversations. We have a plethora of ways to communicate but we prefer the ones where we do not actually have to talk with a person.

Does Social Networking Bond us Together or Tear Us Apart?
There is an opportunity cost to all of this perceived connection. I have seen countless adults talking on their cell phones as their children stood next to them or sat in the back seat of the car waiting for their parents to get off the phone. When we are on the internet or texting, we may not be communicating with the most important people in our lives, which is our children or significant others.

Does all of this networking really bring us closer together or is it tearing us apart. People get tired of being the one always waiting for the person they love to get off the computer or to finish texting. When we are eating in front of the television instead of at the kitchen table we are missing out on great conversations with our loved ones in order to watch someone else on television.

As we move ahead and say that our children have changed, we need to take into account that we have changed as well. Many of us never disconnect from work or from talking with people we hardly know. I fear that we may want to connect with our children when it is too late. I fear that we are teaching them that the only way to communicate with people is to be in a different room, house or city. And lastly, I fear that we have taught students that they can have anything they want whenever they want it, and they will find it pretty tough to handle the first time they don’t get what they want. Sometimes, waiting for your favorite song isn’t such a bad thing because you find a new favorite song in the process.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.