You’re heard of Generation X, Generation Y, and the Millennials. Now there is Generation Text, and chances are, you know one, because you or someone you know is raising one. How do you know for sure? Have you ever asked yourself whether your children are spending too much time online, texting, or playing video games? Do you worry about the effects of all that cyber-time on their attention span and ability to communicate? Have you seen a slump in their work ethic and social skills?
“Whenever I give a talk, I can see 150 heads in the audience bobbing up and down; everyone relates, yes, yes, but the key is what to do about it.” says Michael Osit, a clinical psychologist, who examines the culture — and fallout — of “access” and “excess” available to children in today’s 24/7 digital age. “Kids today have instant access to other kids and the rest of the world. At the same time, we live in a culture of excess in terms of privilege and material things, and kids are acquiring them at younger and younger ages.”
Osit, the author of “Generation Text: Raising Well-Adjusted Kids in an Age of Instant Everything,” will speak and give a book signing on Thursday, April 15, at Community Middle School in Plainsboro. At his presentation he will share advice for parents on balancing the need to encourage their kids to embrace the new technology and its conveniences, while establishing a strong foundation of limits and expectations.
“The culture kids are growing up in today is radically different from the one in which we grew up, and we need to understand it because on some levels, it can be worrisome,” says Osit. “Kids today can push a button and get what they want, so it feeds the instant gratification appetite, and they don’t have to work as hard as other generations. They have access to the world, and they are constantly bombarded with messages — some appropriate, and many that are not.”
He says though they are well-intentioned, parents help feed into that, whether out of inattention, bewilderment, and sometimes, simply guilt. “We live in a competitive culture, so parents give things to their children to give them a social and cultural edge. This is why you have kids getting SAT tutoring in the eighth grade and even younger. You see girls having spa birthday parties in seventh grade, complete with facials and pedicures. It’s the acceleration of everything. It’s social, and it’s fun.”
There is also an element of “keeping up with the Joneses” at work in the way parents behave sometimes, according to Osit. “They want to make sure their child is not socially ostracized. If three- or four- year-olds get cell phones, and their own nine-year-old starts nagging for one too, they feel compelled to give in because they are afraid their kids will be left out. But this can help create a sense of entitlement that can wreak havoc on a child’s expectations and skew his view of the world and his place in it. If kids get something like that at age four, what are they going to want and expect at 9 or 11 or 14?”
The instant gratification fed by the accumulation of material things goes hand-in-hand with the instant results delivered by technology. In the classroom, that translates to a steady chipping away at children’s focus and work ethic, and perpetuates an attitude of ‘it’s good enough and I’m not going to try any harder.’ “Kids don’t feel compelled to go the extra mile,” says Osit. “Any parent who works with their child doing homework understands what I’m talking about. You tell him this essay needs more supporting detail; he says no, it’s good enough.”
Educators acknowledge that while the obvious benefits of technology abound, there is a deleterious effect in the classroom. “Teachers have a much harder job today,” says Lynn Fisher, a guidance counselor at Community Middle School. “There is great pressure on them because children have shorter attention spans, and they want bells and whistles because that’s what they get online, and they want to be entertained. They’re also impatient. They want test scores back immediately, they want feedback immediately. At the same time they have higher levels of frustration and distractibility and lower levels of persistence. If they don’t grasp it instantly, they get impatient and want to give up.”
Educators are also seeing the harmful effects of technology on social behaviors. Colleen Pedersen is a guidance counselor at Community Middle School and a mother of three. “It can be 80 degrees outside and the girls are wearing Ugg boots because they slide the cell phone down inside and turn it to vibrate. When they get a call, they ask to go to the bathroom. They’re talking and texting, but not really communicating. They’re losing the ability to listen to others and to converse and have empathy. They don’t have the same level of sympathy and understanding kids used to because they are missing out on facial communication, tone of voice, and context.”
Ellen Burgess is also a guidance counselor at Community Middle School and a mother of three herself. She says she and her husband were both shocked at recent baseball tryouts in her community, where out of 30 boys, fewer than 10 were physically fit. “These are 11-year-old boys, and it’s evident they’re spending too much time inside and not playing outside and getting exercise. Any free time is devoted to playing video games. They are spending too much time in the virtual world and not enough time in the real world. The technology overload seems to be gender-based: boys play Call of Duty; girls spend a lot of time on Facebook.”
Osit says the answer for parents and educators is to work together and to stay ahead of the technology curve. “Educators have to meet the kids where they are, moving along with Smartboards and home access programs. Teachers have to incorporate the technology in the classroom more and more to accommodate children whose brains have been shaped to learn with graphics and interesting technology as opposed to the lecture format. Some schools are even training teachers to use YouTube as part of homework assignments.”
At Community Middle School and the West Windsor Plainsboro School District in general, continuing education is a priority, according to the guidance team. There are professional development days that focus on all aspects of teacher development, including technology. School to child communication regarding proper use of technology is also a priority. There are developmental lessons for all three grade levels at the middle school, township police come in regularly to talk about Internet safety, teen issues such as bullying and cyber-bullying are discussed in life skills, and the computer cycle handles such topics as academic integrity and plagiarism.
School to parent communication regarding technology includes articles on the guidance website; Panther Press, the parent newsletter’ as well as individual conversations.
Also parent to child communication is critical in handling the way kids use technology. “Parents have to be actively involved in their children’s cyberlife,” says Lynn Fisher. “Be aware and knowledgeable about the issues. Talk to other parents. Know who your kids are friends with.”
Osit admits he and his wife, Terri, a preschool teacher, raised their own children, now 28, 25, and 20 in a simpler time where there was less technology when they were little. Osit grew up on Long Island. His mother was a homemaker; his father owned a couple of family businesses. He graduated from SUNY New York in Oswego in 1976, majoring in psychology and education. He received a masters degree in counseling psychology from Northeastern University in Boston in 1977, and then, in 1979, received an advanced graduate degree in school psychology, also from Northeastern. In 1984, he earned a Ph.D. in psychology from Rutgers University. Currently in private practice in Warren and Morristown, he also teaches in a medical residency program at Overlook Hospital in Summit.
The flip side of technology, the good side, is that it can be used beneficially in terms of communication between teachers and parents,” says Osit. “On a daily basis parents can monitor a child’s progress by going online (with programs such as PowerSchool) and that’s good. Kids have endless amounts of information at their fingertips, and they know how to access and search for information with great expertise.” It’s the other areas where technology can create situations that can get murky, uncomfortable, and even dangerous, which is why he is urging parents and teachers to unite.
Guidance Program, Community Middle School, Grovers Mill Road, Plainsboro. Thursday, April 15, 7:30 p.m. Psychologist Michael Osit, author of “Generation Text: Raising Well-Adjusted Kids in an Age of Instant Everything,” shares tips and advice on establishing a foundation of limits and expectations early, dealing with peer, media, and social pressures; and keeping pace with technological and cultural changes. Open to the public. 609-716-5300 or www.ww-p.org.