Baby Boomers and Digital Natives Communicate Differently – mostly because of Technology

I don’t have data to prove this but it seems typical that Post-World War II baby boomers look upon Generation Y (the generation born between early 1980s to 2000s) as a generation mired heavily in technology to the point of causing limitations in normal, face-to-face communication.

Brooke Bailey’s article in The Maine Campus gives you a sense of the juxtaposition between the mindset of those born without the World Wide Web, and those born after. Despite negative sentiments carried by some baby boomers that technology ruins the social fabric of our generation, Bailey believes it’s a matter of generational styles being different.

Bailey is right. I can speak from experience since I was born in 1984 and remember the beginnings of my internet experience in 1999, when, being well versed already in how to use a computer, enthusiastically made the attempt to compel my parents to download the “500 Hours Free” CD from America Online. Using internet for my first time occurred at my friend Eric’s house (you always have those friends whose parents are up to date with their own version of technology). I still remember the first time Eric and I used AOL Instant Messenger. We literally called each other on the phone in order to set up time to chat online.

(Do any of you have a funny or warm memory using Aol Instant Messenger your first time? Please make a comment below. I’d like to hear about it!)

The pleasure of communication was the gift I saw in the World Wide Web. The most fascinating thing within this new realm of communication were the AOL chatrooms. You could chat with random people, get into debates on virtually any topic. Even at such a young age, I was fascinated by this form of communication incognito. I could say what I wanted without caring for social condemnation; they didn’t know who I was and I didn’t care who they were. The entire thing was fascinating no matter how you looked at it. This form of instant communication through written text was incredible. For thousands of years people waited months before receiving a message from one King to the other as to whether, for instance, war would occur. Here, we were chatting back and forth – with random people – instantaneously.

Brooke Bailey’s article gives you a sense of the juxtaposition that developed in the styles of communication between parents, grandparents, and digital natives who were learning that the internet was their most comfortable form of social interaction. The baby boomers who look upon millennials as incapable of communicating effectively in person also look upon technology as the culprit. They believe technology encourages laziness within a youth that seeks digital screens to implement personal interaction. Bailey explains how the older generation, believing that future generations lack the ostensible balance of the past, are headed for destruction. Though some of these claims have truth mixed into their criticisms, Bailey portrays technology as simply a tool for re-ordering the format of how youth interact, not a ruining of our social fabric.

Bailey acknowledges that digital natives likely have less “face-to-face” interaction as those from previous generations, and that one example of the harm these types of private communications cause is a rise in the number of people with social anxiety. Though she doesn’t cite evidence of such increase, there is an interesting correlation that could explain why social anxiety could be more prevalent for digital natives. As Bailey mentions, communicating through a screen allows a discourse to occur under the security of being virtually incognito. Courage is necessary in public debates, but with online interactions you’re allowed to write and express your thoughts in a way that alleviates this attribute from the equation.

The habit of only speaking out when one has the veil of anonymity could give a digital native a false sense of bravery. The impairment occurs when one must exhibit the same outspokenness in the virtual world as in public. The stark contrast – between making one’s opinion advertised under the veil of anonymity verses in public – can be so alarming a distinction that anxiety sets in to cope with it. The realization that courage in the virtual world means nothing in public is quite a surprise.

Despite this, Bailey highlights ways in which technology has given us more avenues of communication. These avenues are in the form of every mobile device and application used to socially connect us.

Technology gives us the tool to enhance communication to suit our desires. Whether we look to increase the amount of communication with a distant relative, or keep in touch with our children and parents through digital cameras, technology has provided us with the tools to accomplish this. But there is also a legitimate fear of learning how new technologies work. A psychological road block can exist for older generations who may criticize a tool, not because of its inherent danger, but because learning it is too “complicated”. Condemnation, then, becomes easier than adoption. This is a common fear regarding all digital tools which are first introduced into the public realm. But when a tool becomes ubiquitous, it has most likely done so because people have adopted the efficiency and pleasure it brings. If communication with friends and family derives social pleasure, then mobile devices are simply digital tool with which to acquire it. Mobile devices, then, are simply the digital representation of a person who is unable to communicate face-to-face.

Either older generations are unable to experience the social pleasure of digital communication because of their unwillingness – or fear – of learning the tools, or it could be a reflection of the younger generation’s unwillingness to teach them how. I know that teaching my own parents takes a bit of patience on my part, but once they figure it out, they’re able to enjoy it.

Baileys article concludes with an acknowledgement that each generation has its own social-superiority complex. Whether classic forms of communication are superior to current ones, or whether nostalgia is a reason to be weary of “the new”, technology will always influence the preferences of either. Change is natural. Technology creates social change that is felt by everyone, whether those using digital tools or those who romanticize classic forms of communication. Technology in many ways balloons the inherent difference already existing between generations. The juxtaposition of communication seems greater, not because each generation has a natural opposition against the next, but because the constant upgrading of tools necessary in communicating between them are more difficult for the previous generation to learn.

If that is the case then digital natives have a responsibility to take the time – in whatever capacity time allows them – to teach those willing to learn – with patience and respect – how to navigate these technological waters. That form of pedagogical interaction, I’m sure, is always positive.

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