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 teen-agers 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 every day 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.
“Kids are digital natives, they are born into this society, and they learn by digital,” says Shawn Latimer, a teacher and parent navigating the digital universe with today’s generation, who adds that it was quite different for his own generation. “We were digital immigrants; we came into it, but they were born into it.”
Latimer sees the difference first hand with his 18-month-old daughter, Adelyn.
“It’s amazing the studies that are coming out now, our kids’ brains actually wired differently—they have to be,” he explains.
As a teacher, Latimer sees a huge advantage in exposing children to technology as early as possible.
“I think the sooner you can get them on it the better,” he says. “Of course, you don’t want to over-do it, and you really have to make sure it’s not just a baby sitter for them.”
Adelyn is already an experienced iPad user, clicking on her favorite apps and swiping through screens with the ease of a newborn dolphin frolicking through the sea. Even for a child her age there is an abundance of apps, many of which build vocabulary while entertaining and producing endless giggles from the youngest users.
“She can recognize which apps she likes and she smiles the minute she touches one,” Latimer says.
By chance or design, even her first word was apple, learned with a vocabulary app depicting an image of a bright red apple, on this sleek little Apple iPad. (Steve Jobs must surely be resting in peace.)
Despite the strong attraction of the iPad, Latimer says he’s careful to make sure that Adelyn is still just a kid. Her iPad time is limited to about 35 to 40 minutes every few days.
“When I first introduced her to it that was an issue, because she didn’t want to stop playing with it,” he recalls. But, like anything, once the newness factor has worn off that’s less of an issue. “Now after awhile she’ll get up and go get a ball or do something else; she almost self-regulates herself on it.”
But Adelyn isn’t the only generation of the Latimer family who loves her technology. Grandmother Linda Latimer is perhaps the family’s biggest fan of Facebook.
“I get on Facebook five times a day, at least five times a day,” Linda notes.
While Linda also uses the Internet for looking up information, playing games, or sending emails, Facebook is her favorite way to keep up with friends.
“I have some friends and we visit back and forth, and I play one game on it,” she says. “Gamers tend to get together and we help each other,” she says of her Facebook time.
She also enjoys viewing photos on her friends’ pages, and putting up photos of her own family. In many cases, Facebook has even replaced more conventional forms of communication.
“I have a friend in Oklahoma and we would write Christmas cards and birthday cards, but now we talk to each other on Facebook,” she explains.
The Latimers are three generations, two of them digital immigrants and one native, and all of them learning and making technology a part of their every day life.
Dana Dose is another young parent with a child eager to navigate the digital world. A computer technician for Boone Community Schools, Dana is the person educators call upon to help keep them up with changing technology. Her son Sam is still a toddler, but already he’s adept with his favorite piece of technology: the iPad.
Dana has seen first hand how technology can speed the learning curve.
“He’s 2 and a half and he can count to 20, he knows all his letters if you put them in front of him, and a lot of that came from the iPad and working with different apps on it,” she says.
The tablet format, with its swipes and touch control seems to work very well for children as they are first introduced to technology.
“The iPad is really easy for kids to navigate. He doesn’t have to control a mouse, he doesn’t have to control a keyboard, he just swipes and pushes and moves, all with just his finger,” she explains.
In addition to the iPad, Dana has a laptop and smart phone, and she cautions people to think about how a device will be used before making a purchase. For example, if you plan to write a lot a laptop with keyboard may be more suitable than a tablet.
“The biggest thing that people need to figure out is what their needs are before they decide what piece of technology goes with it,” Dana notes.
As for Sam, she’s happy to see her son embracing technology so easily, but she’s also sure to keep it in balance with other forms of play and learning.
“I don’t set specific limits. He likes to get out and play with his trucks and play outside. If it becomes an issue then I definitely would, but so far it hasn’t been a problem,” she adds.
One family that knows what it’s like to navigate the digital landscape with a growing family is Joe and Lori Losh and their sons: Logan, 17; twins Lane, and Lance, 14; and Layden, 8.
For the family, technology is within arm’s reach even during a football game on TV. They don’t just watch TV; they utilize everything from a laptop to a tablet to keep up with the individual players they follow as part of a Fantasy Football League.
Lance went so far as to program their Direct TV connection to send a scrawl across the bottom of the screen whenever one of his players does something good. No one else in the family seems to know how he did it, but that’s fine with Lance who grins big as the TV alerts everyone to the fact that one of his players just completed a pass in a game other than they one they are currently watching.
Needless to say, both Lance and Lane are budding tech gurus. Lance says he would like a career involving some type of computer or IT work. Lane would like to be a stay-at-home stock broker and is honing his skills already with an app that lets him use play money to buy, sell, and trade stocks at will. Cash-strapped teachers may want to consult with him on augmenting their retirement funds.
“This week, Coinstar is a very good stock,” he says with a grin.
Education and entertainment may be two of the most popular uses of technology for today’s families, but communication may be just as important. Both Joe and oldest son Logan have their own smart phones, while everyone else in the family still has a traditional cell.
Well, almost everyone else. Youngest son Layden doesn’t have his own cell phone yet, but that will change as he gets just a little bit older and is in more independent school activities.
“We’re kind of the last parents to let them have one,” Lori says.
Like a lot of families, Joe and Lori say the cell phone is more than a convenience; it’s almost a necessity, as kids get more and more involved in sports and other functions.
But while this family is extremely wired-in, they are also a family that likes to get off the couch and play the games themselves. They are heavily involved in athletics and community activities. Joe was recently named Adult Volunteer of the Year the Boone YMCA, while the boys earned top honors as Youth Volunteers.
“We don’t let them just sit on their computers all the time,” Joe says.
“These kids get plenty of exercise,” Lori adds.
The couple also agree on basic rules for Internet use in the home, much of it based on common sense, such as checking histories and making sure that the kids are supervised, doors open, when surfing the net.
It’s all a matter of keeping things in balance, using the Internet and technology to learn and grow, but also staying connected with family and friends and the world around them.
As Latimer notes, most adults are still “digital immigrants,” learning to navigate the newfound world of digital technology. But for the generation of children coming of age today, they are natives. Technology is a part of every day life for them, and they continue to lead the way into a brave new frontier.