September 18, 2013
Posted in: You & Your Family
Topics: Culture + Society
The digital world opens up lots of opportunities for parents to know less than their kids. Anne’s 22-year-old son recently sent her a link to a website devoted to helping kids provide tech support to their digitally-challenged parents. At first, it seemed like a clever gag put forward by youthful pranksters at Google. But it’s no joke. The website features more than 50 videos that explain how to perform basic technology functions like copy/paste, changing your screensaver, making calls from your computer, or creating a strong password. It turns out these videos pack a lot of helpful information into less than a minute each. Google started this idea last month in response to their employees noticing how often they were asked to provide tech support for their own parents.
This website gets to the heart of Marc Prensky’s 2001 distinction between digital natives and digital immigrants. The digital native is someone born after 1982 who is part of an entire generation of young people who have never known a world without cell phones, emails and videogames. Intuitively, they know how to operate the latest digital toy without reading the manual, and they thrive at digital multi-tasking (like listening to music while doing homework and texting). The digital immigrant (often a parent of a digital native), isn’t a native speaker of technology, though may become more assimilated over time. He has to work to learn the new digital language, and may reveal his “accent”—when he calls to ask if you’ve seen his email, prints out a document before editing it, or signs his text messages.
For generations, immigrant parents have always relied on their children to help navigate the unfamiliar folkways and language of their newly-adopted homes. Sometimes, the children of these parents may feel burdened by the pressure to translate and help out, and the parents may worry that their authority is undermined by their children being cultural experts. But, we think the periodic role reversal of immigrant families and their more culturally-adept children is healthy, and may point to a more general truism in families of adolescents and young adults. A healthy family is one in which the parents welcome the contributions that a child makes as he or she explores the wider world. These contributions may be new friends, new ideas learned at school, new music or food, or technological savviness. When a family can embrace these moments of role reversal, of children having something to teach their parents, the family is strengthened—children and their parents are on their way to developing life-long adult-to-adult relationships.
So, don’t be upset if you’re clueless about how to set the DVR. Don’t fret if your teen buys you a webcam for your birthday, and tries to teach you to Skype. Being a digital klutz may be just the opening your child needs to start stepping up to the plate, and feeling like a grown up.
A version of this post originally appeared and was written by the authors (Gorrindo and Fishel) in Psychology Today’s The Digital Family blog on January 25, 2011.