Digital Native? Try Digital Newborn

By Tim Cigelske
Pixelation of ultrasound image

Pixelation of ultrasound image by Andrew Malone / Flickr

Contemplations on a generation with Gmail, Twitter, and Tumblr accounts before they were born.

“Dad, did you know that a long, long time ago people didn’t have computers? They all had to use phones.”

My 5-year-old daughter Clara told me this fact shortly after she woke me up this morning.

“I know,” I yawned. “I was there.”

“You were THERE??” she replied, incredulous.

It was clear she could not fathom her world without the existence of computers, and apparently she couldn’t picture me without my MacBook, either.

Clara has only known a world with the Internet. Before she was born, I set up a Twitter account for her with the bio “I’m a very early adopter.” I also created Tumblr blogs for her and her 19-month-old brother Xavier to document their lives growing up in words, photos, and video.

The primary reason I created accounts for them is that it’s simply a convenient way to chronicle their childhood. I see these outlets as just a digital version of the baby books previous generations had. If my kids are doing something cute, I can snap a photo or write a story and send it to their accounts from my phone to re-live with them later in life. These years go by so fast that the easier it is to capture the moments, the better.

It also helps solve the problem of parental oversharing, particularly on Facebook. Some of my Facebook friends or followers on Twitter care about my home life, but the bulk of my connections, particularly professional ones, don’t. By giving my kids their own social networks, friends and family who do want to see baby or toddler posts can find them there. Yes, I still post about Clara and Xavier on my personal pages, but not nearly as much as on their own dedicated Tumblr or Twitter accounts. It’s kind of like an opt-in for baby photos.

Creating a centralized spot also makes it easy to find things in the future, especially since we’re all constantly upgrading phones, using different cameras, or storing things on various hard drives. If nothing else, Tumblr and Twitter are good ways to curate and store multimedia files that may get lost in the shuffle between all the devices we have.

Someday, Clara and Xavier will be able to look back at their lives growing up online. But for the moment, they only care about my electronics for games and video.

Clara and I had that morning exchange during our typical weekend routine. She had crawled into bed with her mother and me, hit me in the face until I woke up, and then led me to the living room where I helped her put Lalaloopsy’s Friendship Parade on my laptop. She then promptly forgot all about the digital dark age.

But if she hadn’t been in the mood for a game, she would have gotten me to turn on our Google TV and find a cartoon to stream on Amazon Prime or Netflix, which already has a profile curated for her with age-appropriate shows.

I think back to my own childhood. I would wake up early on Saturdays to watch Muppet Babies or X-Men or whatever else was on the Saturday-morning cartoon block. Then I would play Nintendo or Sega Genesis or whatever game consoles I had at the time.

It’s not like I was only glued to screens. I rode bikes and made forts and even took care of the animals on our small hobby farm. But like any other kid I did indulge myself in the technological entertainment tools of the day, as primitive as they seem now.

In this way my daughter is not that much different from me. She loves to go to the park, take walks with me, and ride her scooter and bike. The major difference is that Clara has greater control over her digital world of entertainment. She can choose to watch Dora if she doesn’t want to watch Bugs Bunny.

I was born in 1981 so I’m barely on the cusp of the Millennial generation. There’s an article that’s making the rounds on Facebook about how my group, sandwiched between Gen-X and later-generation Millennials, had a childhood divided by starkly different eras.

We’re old enough to remember the world before the sound of a dial-up modem completely changed everything. And we’re young enough for our formative years to have been shaped by our relationships with AOL Instant Messenger—or even MySpace.

I think my daughter is part of another generation in transition, with feet in two worlds. She won’t experience anything like I did, of course. She won’t need to request her favorite song on the radio and then have perfect timing to dub it to a cassette tape. YouTube and iTunes are her personal DJs, letting her instantly access the Frozen soundtrack, or any other song she wants to hear.

But she’s still linked to that analog world through me, even if she finds my experience hard to believe. In some small way, I hope she’ll appreciate all she can access at her fingertips, because her generation will still be able to conceive that it once didn’t exist.

But for her kids, I’ll just be an out-of-touch grandfather. The idea of another world before handheld devices—or wearables, or implants, or self-driving cars, or whatever else exists in another generation—will be nothing more than an abstraction.

There’s no going back from this digital frontier, just like there’s no way to go back to our agrarian past as a country. It’s the new normal.

Someday technology will become so commonplace that we’ll stop writing and reading essays like this one. It will just be a fact of life.

But for this moment in history, we can still appreciate the wonder and amazement of what we’re able to do. And for that, we need the eyes of a child.

This piece is one of two companion essays on children, social media, and documentation. Read Priya Kumar’s take here.

CigelskeTim Cigelske is the Director of Social Media at Marquette University.


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