Future generations will never believe it. They will scarcely be able to imagine a time, not so long ago, but which already feels as if it were a different age, far removed from the present day.
But it really happened.
Once upon a time, as all good stories begin, once upon a time families packed up their one and only family car with tent poles and picnic baskets, heading off on vacation to unknown parts of the country with only a folded map from the local service station and loads of common sense to help them find their way. They always made it to their destination and back home again, and sometimes they found a few unexpected turns and surprises along the way.
Once upon a time, when teenagers left the house for a night of scooping the loop, parents stopped them at the door to make sure they had a dime in their pocket, just to make sure they could make a call in the case of an emergency.
Once upon a time, the phone never rang during dinner; thumbs were used for hitching a ride inside of texting a friend; and while we couldn’t keep up with friends on Facebook, we did have a delightful thing called a party line, which really kept neighbors up to date on one another’s happenings — whether you wanted it to or not.
Like I said, future generations will never believe it.
Technology has wrapped itself into the fabric of everyday family life, changing the way parents and children communicate with each other, how we plan our days and our trips, how we study, and even how we entertain. And it’s happened far more rapidly than any techno or industrial revolution that ever came before it.
“It’s a different era now,” says Laurie Hotz, who as a mother of two young adult daughters and Youth Services Director at Fort Dodge Public Library, has had a front row seat for technology’s incursion into family life.
“Even in the small, five-year age difference of my daughters, everything has changed,” Hotz says.
Daughter Hillary is a freshman at Central College in Pella, while older daughter Meredith is a recent graduate of Central and is now working as a chemist back in her hometown of Fort Dodge. Like many families, Hillary and Meredith were the ones who brought their parents along into the digital age.
“I think our youngest probably got her first computer in about second grade,” Laurie recalls.
For the most part, computer use back then was limited to a few games, such as SimCity or the ever-popular Oregon Trail. As a couple, Laurie and her husband, Dana, wanted to make sure that their kids balanced computer time with other activities.
“We didn’t want them on the computer a whole lot, not really until they reached middle school,” she says.
But for parents of younger children today, Laurie notes that computer use has become not only more friendly, but also more necessary.
“Just in the last five years, things have changed a lot. Our oldest was in early high school before she was really allowed to look at the Internet. Now I would allow a much younger child to do that. The filters are so much more sophisticated now. It’s just a part of their life; they know how to use it and how not to use it,” she explains.
As the children grew, so did their need and use of technology. They added laptops, iPods, and smart phones to their digital library.
These days, when the entire family is home, there are four computers and three smart phones under one roof. Laurie and Dana alone have two computers in their home, something they never could have imagined when they were first married. Dana, a farmer, uses an old HP in his office but also relies heavily on a smart phone to keep up to date on the markets and weather. The couple also recently purchased an iMac, which they keep in the kitchen.
Laurie says the original plan was to simply buy a laptop for the kitchen, but they liked the larger screen on the iMac, and its sleek design takes up little space.
“Our daughters both insisted that we get an Apple,” she adds, evidence again that it’s often the younger generation leading the digital decisions.
The information age has affected every occupation, even farming.
“My husband is always checking the markets and weather forecast, and now there’s no waiting for that noon broadcast on the radio. We always had to make sure we had the weather on at 6 and 10 p.m. (TV news), to see if it changed, and he’d check the weather again first thing in the morning. My husband bales a lot of hay, and he needs to know if it’s going to rain. Now he can check the forecast on his computer or cell phone anytime,” Laurie explains.
For now, the couple has just one smart phone, which Dana uses, but Laurie will get one when her plan is due for an upgrade. However, just as previous generations of parents insisted that their children always have a dime for a pay phone, she insisted that each of their daughters have a smart phone.
“My girls wouldn’t be without a smart phone, and I’m the type of mom who wouldn’t send them out without one,” Laurie says. “They’ve got a built-in Garmin, and they can get directions for anywhere they want. If we’re worried about the weather, they can check that before they head out. Some parents aren’t like that, but I’m one that recognizes the value of what is on those smart phones.”
While Ann Knobbe’s son is much younger, she is also a mom who very much sees and appreciates the value of technology in today’s world. Ann, a second grade teacher at St. Edmond’s School in Fort Dodge, says the couple’s son is already one step ahead of his parents in at least one category.
“My husband sometimes struggles answering my smart phone,” but 4-year-old Thomas never has a problem, she says with a smile.
Ann and her husband, Chris, started introducing technology to Thomas when he was just 2 years old.
“He watched other kids at daycare, and they did things like the Nintendo DS or Xbox Dance Party Revolution, and we weren’t ready for those things. So the first thing we went for was the Fisher Price iXL, and it’s just right for toddlers,” Ann says.
She liked that it was sturdy enough to hold up to a toddler’s use and provided games, activities, stories, and Thomas even learned how to take digital photos.
“It also has a stylus so he can learn how to hold a pen, and he writes and draws with it, too,” she adds.
By the time he was 3 years old, Santa decided that a LeapPad would be a good gift for Thomas. Ann says the LeapPad is almost like a “mini Kindle” and is just right for his age and learning needs.
“That’s what you have to do with technology: weigh the importance of it to their education, or is it fun? We’d like some things like an iPad, but that’s a lot of money. And he doesn’t need it yet because it’s not developmentally appropriate, but we’ll need it eventually,” Ann says.
As a teacher, she appreciates the fact that he’s learning computer basics, such as how to get to the “Home” screen and how to swipe on a touch screen. The couple has both a laptop and desktop computer at home, and Thomas is familiar with how to use a mouse. But with evolving technology, even the mouse is quickly fading so that it may soon be regarded in the same category as VHS tapes — a revolution when they dawned, but rapidly replaced by advancing technology.
While Ann and Chris are eager to provide opportunities for their son, they also have some boundaries. They are still big believers in traditional books.
“We still read paper books. We go to the library every week, and we read lots and lots and lots,” Ann says.
The couple also encourages Thomas to be outside. This summer he was enthralled by visiting the carpenters building a new home next door. He soon had to have his own toy tools, hammering and measuring right along with the crew that enjoyed having a budding craftsman in their midst.
They have time to read and play because of other activities they choose to block out.
“On school nights, we don’t watch any TV. We read five books a night; I love to read to him,” Ann says.
As for monitoring all the technology in their home, Ann says parents are the most important filter.
“Right now he’s never on anything without me around. I’m always in the room with him, but for middle school kids it’s a whole different story,” she explains.
For parents of older children, she recommends having the filters set up on all devices, monitoring their settings, checking their history, reading their text messages, and friending them on Facebook.
“With cyberbullying and things going on, it’s so important,” she says. “Now what you say about someone doesn’t just stay in your school, it goes out to the whole community and the world.”
For some, the risks that come along with the digital age make them long to return to simpler times, but Ann also sees the great opportunities that it creates.
“I think as parents we want to remember how we used to do things, but our society is evolving and today’s children are probably going to have jobs that we haven’t even heard of yet,” she notes.
And kids are resilient, absorbing technology the way a toddler learns his native tongue, which also illustrates the advantages of making technology a part of life early on.
“Kids don’t have any stress about it. Every time I get a new phone, it’s the worst thing that’s happened to me, but kids aren’t stressed at all,” she says with a smile.
So with children leading the way, today’s families are making technology part of the fabric of their lives.