As a product of 1981, I’m officially one of the oldest in my generation, a generation cultural scholars label the “Millennial” group. Wedged between Generation X (those born between 1960 and 1980) and what some are starting to call Generation Z (those born within the last decade), we Millennials are the last people on this planet to have really known what life was like before cell phones and the Internet and reality TV. We’re the last generation to remember what it was like to erase errors with a typewriter or to physically cut and paste text and images to create layouts. And we are most likely the last human beings to actually have experienced a twinge of nervousness when technologies like Google Earth took pictures of our backyards or when our junk mail started to mysteriously be tailored to our shopping habits.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that we don’t love and embrace the cultural shifts that technology has accustomed us to. We are an adaptive bunch, exhilarated by possibility, by change, by the unknown. We love to claim social media and texting and augmented reality as our own. We love embracing new ideas and we are quick to latch onto social and cultural movements that separate us from the ways of the past.
But if we are honest with ourselves, it’s time that we admit that we are, in so many ways, failing the generations that come after us. We’re letting the immediate, albeit superficial, content that emerges from technology overpower our recognition for what it is doing to the future of humanity. That doesn’t mean we need to hate or fear or stop technology. Absolutely not. But we do need to control how we use it.
Caught up in a world of instant gratification and thrill-ride-like change, we Millennials are also becoming an entitled and undisciplined bunch. As we embrace the advances of science and technology and as we bandwagon our way through new ideologies in education, religion, technological advance, and cultural consciousness, we are too quick to assume that we deserve immediate fulfillment, that we are unquestionably right, and that the past has little to offer us. It’s as if we often, even if outside of our own consciousness, assume that because the world is different now that human beings are different as well—as if somehow, for example, our cultural reliance on cell phones somehow trumps human interaction in public spaces. Or how our ability to keep in contact with hundreds of old acquaintances on Facebook somehow keeps us from strengthening the couple dozen relationships right in front of us. Or even how rapid advances in science and technology somehow trump our age-old dependence on religion.
The reality is, we get so caught up in change and advancement and disconnecting from the past that we often find ourselves riding the waves of self-indulgence and tolerance, believing that anything and everything goes, that individualism is greater than the collective good, and that some of the most stabilizing and joy-producing human traditions built on interdependence aren’t as valuable as they have been for thousands of years: family, spirituality, morality, friendship, collaboration, and respect. Technology and media are two places in those areas where we have great potential for making a difference, good or bad, for generations to come. Unfortunately, our unbridled ability set limits on our technological use is causing more bad than good.
To that end, we have an obligation to future generations to set standards and cultural paradigms now—while many of these technologies are in their infancy—in order to keep those precious human traditions in tact. Below I list seven ways I believe our generation can make a difference for our human-family successors by developing culturally accepted (and expected) practices. Some ideas are grandiose and incredibly hard to do; others are simple changes in behaviors that we can do every day. But in any case, setting the standards now will change the way our children view the world. And how their children’s children view the world.
Admittedly, this list grew out of a collection of pet peeves of mine. But I have a feeling I’m not the only one who believes these things are good for the future of the human family. In our use of media and technology, we must collectively commit to the following standards if we want to avoid self-indulgence and focus on what’s best for humanity as a whole. Seven ways our generation can change the way we use technology to strengthen the human family for generations that follow:
- Display nuclear families as the norm, not the exception
- Get rid of the digital smut (and fight against it)
- Make real friends, not Facebook friends
- Know your neighbors better than your technology
- When you’re with people, be with people
- Show some respect and put the technology away
- Use technology to spread religion, not kill it
#1: Display Nuclear Families as the Norm, Not the Exception
For most of the last century, television series commonly depicted families as nuclear—consisting of a married man and woman with children. Before 1990, generations of television watchers were accustomed to TV shows like Leave It to Beaver, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, The Cosby Show, Family Matters, Family Ties, Dennis the Menace, Growing Pains, and the list goes on. When families were depicted on TV, they were almost always nuclear. Even with The Brady Bunch, families were shown as stable and traditional. Sure, a few dysfuncational families were presented, as in Roseanne and Married with Children and The Simpsons. But even in these cases, families still consisted of a married couple with kids in a relatively traditional and stable home environment.
During the 1990s, a transition period happened. We still had some family-oriented TV shows, like Home Improvement and Everybody Loves Raymond, but the ‘90s became dominated by television shows like Friends and Seinfeld and The Drew Carey Show, where families were largely absent from series and storylines were focused around short and terminal relationships. When family ties were discussed in these shows, they were almost always explained in dysfunctional or broken terms.
Today, hardly any TV show that displays families keeps to the nuclear pattern. We are more accustomed to seeing shows like Two and a Half Men, Modern Family, and About a Boy, where families are broken or non-traditional. Most of the rest of the network shows, like Parks and Recreation, Community, or Two Broke Girls don’t address family at all. And even the shows that do mention family relationships—like occasionally in The Big Bang Theory—they do so almost entirely in dysfunctional narratives. And I don’t even want to start with where reality TV has gone with the family.
Not all television shows can or need to show the “perfect” family, but the elimination of traditional and stable families altogether from our visual inputs is damaging. As a generation, we are convincing ourselves and teaching our children that families either aren’t critical for a healthy society or that families are expected to be dysfunctional, broken, and unstable. Nuclear, stable, and happy relationships aren’t portrayed as the norm; they’re portrayed as the clear exception. Through our selection of television content, we are inadvertently (and even intentionally) suggesting that healthy, committed, and lasting family relationships is a dream of the past, too difficult and unnecessary to strive for.
#2: Get Rid of the Digital Smut (and Fight against It)
For decades, it has been easy to make arguments against pornography, claiming it as a clear and unquestionable detriment to society. When I first attended college in the late 1990s, I took a required social problems course where an entire section was devoted to the damaging effects of pornographic messaging on society. But as the Internet has burgeoned, so too has the proliferation and acceptance of sexually explicit material. Surprisingly, within about a twenty-year span, our cultural perception went from viewing pornography as a secretive, disgusting, and psychologically damaging addiction to an expected and openly promoted way of life.
I’m admittedly appalled by how frequently network television uses pornography-driven masturbation as a topic of conversation. One punch line after another has built within our collective thinking that sexting, voyeurism, masturbation, pornographic indulgence, and promiscuity aren’t matters of addiction or serious behavior in need of correction, but rather that these behaviors are perfectly healthy and normal parts of daily life.
The problem is, by letting go of self-constraint and normalizing sexual addiction, we’re communicating to ourselves and to our children that animalistic self-gratification and indulgence is somehow superior to building committed, focused, and long-lasting relationships. When we use technology to immediately gratify sexual appetites, our perception of what a caring, enduring, and respectful relationship should be is obscured. Even if unintentional, we lock ourselves in a frame of mind that there are somehow certain sexual experiences that we must expect, that we must be self gratified by someone we love rather than the reverse, where we are supposed to approach relationships with altruism and unconditional compassion.
Much of the smut that we are exposed to on our cell phones, televisions, and computers isn’t direct or explicit pornography. But the incessant references on primetime television to watching pornography and the seemingly innocuous jokes about sexting and masturbating and visiting strip clubs is incurring within us a belief that indulgence in these practices is expected and normal and it doesn’t hurt anybody else. But let’s be honest: the more we indulge in personal satisfaction through these media—the more we assume that our carnal desires are more important than restraining for the common good of others—the less we realize how much we are participating in a cycle of sexual exploitation that, as history can attest, has done nothing but damage people—and women especially—emotionally, psychologically, and physically.
As a generation, we have an obligation to fight against the easy access to and proliferation of smut on our digital devices. If this means boycotting television shows that joke about consuming pornography, then so be it. If it means we have to demand from cell phone companies and Internet giants like Google that pornographic access needs to be more difficult, then let’s fight for it. But let’s not be the generation that said that we didn’t care about how technology normalized sexual addiction and exploitation. Let’s not be the generation that ultimately determined that satisfying fleeting human appetites was more important than practicing constraint in order to strengthen the collective human soul.
#3: Make Real Friends, Not Facebook Friends
In the race for popularity and acceptance, our generation has seen a strange twist in what we value in friendship. Rather than spending quality time with the people we care about most, we are frequently getting caught in the race to keep in contact with more friends, rather than making quality friends. We get some self-gratifying pleasure out of seeing our friendship pools grow from 100 to 400 to even a thousand or more different “friends” on Facebook. But most of us would admit that out of 500 friends on Facebook, we probably only have personal and meaningful interactions with maybe 100 of them. So why do we spend so much time seeking “likes” and comments from so many people, when nearly 80% of them aren’t really people we’re all that close to?
The truth is, Facebook didn’t even exist before 2004. Within 10 short years, nearly 70% of American adults have a Facebook account and 40% of all Americans (128 million people) log in every single day. Recent studies have shown that we have a dopamine spike when we get enticing bits of information that encourage us to know more. When we get notices, for example, that we were tagged in a post, that we got a message, or that someone commented on or liked something we said, we have an almost incontrollable, impulsive desire to know what was said or who said it. We get a spike in dopamine in our brain, like we would when taking a drug, and we are biologically encouraged to seek more. Social media has had such an immediate and explosive impact on the human race not because it is particularly beneficial, but because it is, quite literally, addictive. The problem is, we don’t seem to recognize the difference between the two.
As an unintended consequence of social media use, we have once again found ourselves getting caught in a cycle of self-indulgence that keeps us from building real and quality human relationships where we care about others. Social media addiction doesn’t allow us to get out and hug people and share with people and laugh with people. Rather, it keeps us entrenched in a desire to build a collection of reaffirming, self-worth boosts, to gather more friends, more likes, and more comments, but very little of anything of value and certainly not anything that benefits anyone besides ourselves. There’s not much, for example, that you or your friends will find worth writing about in your journal that happens on a Facebook page.
#4: Know Your Neighbors better than Your Technology
Can you name every person that lives five houses to either side of you? Do you know everyone in the two or three houses across the street from you? It’s a rather depressing thought that if we were to find ourselves in some kind of a neighborhood emergency, most of us wouldn’t know the people around us well enough to even know how to help them.
In an age of ubiquitous technology, our free time is frequently being usurped by emails, texts, iPods, and video games. As another unintended consequence of the many devices we love, we find ourselves answering emails, texts, and other “business” rather than take the time to be out with our neighbors and close acquaintances. We find our time being sucked away by the technologies within our homes so much that we have a remarkably small awareness of the things happening around us.
Unlike generations before us, where people knew their neighbors, their neighbors’ kids, and, more importantly, their neighbors’ needs, we are often so caught up in our technological busyness and global connectivity that we fail to take part in the world right in front of our eyes. We all tell ourselves how busy we are but fail to realize how self-indulgent a phrase like that is. Are we really too busy to know the people around us? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American spends between 3 and 5 hours watching television every day. The time spent socializing with friends and neighbors? Forty-five minutes.
While leisurely activities are important, and we do frequently have emails to attend to, we need to take a step back ask just how self-indulgent our busy and technology-driven lives really are.
#5: When You’re with People, Be with People
Ten years ago, I used to sit down on an airplane and the person I sat next to and I would quickly engage in a conversation. Each of us would ask the other where we were going and we’d learn about each others’ travel plans, occupations, families, and so forth. We would have wonderful collegial, friendly conversations with perfect strangers.
After iPods came out, however, this behavior has quickly changed. How frequently do you find yourself these days engaging in similar conversations with strangers? Our generation has quickly found it easier to simply put on headphones than to talk with people around them. In social situations, when there is a lull, we often resort to checking our cell phones, making texts, or surfing the internet. And we’ve all seen couples at restaurants sitting within two feet of each other across from a table but not speaking a word while they ignore who they’re with to communicate on their phones.
As a generation, we have become accustomed to somehow believing that it is polite to engage with technology when there is a real person next to us instead. Since when was a person miles away communicating through a text message more important than the person in front of us? Why do so many of us have the inability to put technological communication on hold when we have the opportunity to engage in real, human communication?
Common sense in social etiquette would suggest that when we are with real people, that we would interact with them instead of interacting with machines. Yet we somehow feel rude if we interrupt someone listening to a song on their iPod, rather than the other way around: feeling rude for tuning people next to us out. As a self-indulgent practice, we feel like it is our prerogative to listen to music, check our phones, text, and use the internet rather than be conscious of the needs, concerns, and actions of the people we are with. Except in emergency situations, it really shouldn’t be appropriate to answer a phone when a human being is standing in front of us, talking to us in person. And technology shouldn’t be an escape for us when we are in quiet, awkward, or otherwise busy family and social gatherings. We need to make the effort to get to know people, to step outside of our closed little world, and engage with other human beings.
#6: Show Some Respect and Put the Technology Away
When I first started teaching college eight years ago, I rarely had students bring in materials that weren’t related to class. No one brought in novels or newspapers to read, no one messaged their friends and families during class. But as smartphones and social media have surged and that addiction to information has increased, students and even colleagues simply have become unaware of the disrespect they show when tuning out a professor or coworker or spouse in favor of texting, using Instagram or Facebook, or even, in some cases, answering their phones. Our generation has a blatant lack of awareness of the social situations in which we preside.
I sat in a meeting not too long ago where a leader of our group was actually specifically talking about the issue of using cell phones while someone is speaking. He was very kind and charismatic in his approach to telling us that it was inappropriate behavior, yet several people in the audience were using phones as he addressed this issue and even continued using cell phones after he addressed it. The fact is, I’m not sure the people heard because they simply weren’t listening while they were engaged in their phones.
Many of us could probably admit to missing something important that a co-worker, friend, or even spouse said to us because we were engaged in something dumb on our cell phones while they were trying to speak to us. And most of us could probably recount the same situation in reverse—the difference is, we mostly only recognize the lack of respect when people are doing it to us. When we’re in front of a crowd or in the middle of a conversation and the people in front of us are checking their technologies, or leaving their ear buds in, we feel insulted, neglected, ignored. So why do we do it in return?
Whether we are in a classroom, in church, at a presentation, or simply in a room with other people, we need to learn that respect involves giving attention to those making the effort to communicate to us. Even if the person speaking is boring, it is a self-centered and disrespectful practice to blatantly tune them out in favor of checking our devices.
#7: Use Technology to Spread Religion, Not Kill It
What happened to the Anne of Green Gables and the Charlie Brown Christmases, where religion was a part of the everyday lifestyles of the characters we related to? In contemporary technology and media, we rarely see religion portrayed as a normal, consistent way of life.
If we’re not careful, future generations may look back on us and say that Millennials, at the turn of the century, are to blame for the disappearance of religion. There’s no question that people from our era are leaving the church in droves. There are, of course, infinite reasons why a person may wish to disengage from religious practice—belief in the convincing arguments of science, frustration in the doctrinal wars between similar but different sects, or simply the lack of commitment to a lifestyle contradictory to the shifting trends in our culture—but there are equally infinite reasons why this is damaging to our society.
Ever since human beings have been on this planet, there have been clear and powerful connections to religion in any civilization. From the early Mesopotamians up until the modern era, religion has had a stronghold in cultural practice, affecting the way people respond to each other and to the world.
Despite the arguments against religion—strife and bigotry between groups, lack of consistency and clarity, incongruence with science—religion is a fundamental part of the human psyche and the way we have always interpreted the world. Perhaps most important, the majority of religions, in their purest forms (not tainted by extremism) teach love, respect, compassion, and self-control for the good of those around us. When religion is lost, we tend to have an intrinsic and instinctual nature to be self-concerted, to take a survival-of-the-fittest mentality, and to forego the extra effort it takes to refrain from the indulgences and self-gratifications of sex, drugs, alcohol, violence and, just as alarming, indifference.
In the world of technology and media, religion has lost nearly all of its weight. Because religious organizations don’t have the kind of financial resources to compete with Hollywood, most of what we see on the screen about religion is tainted by trendsetters and progressive thinkers who feel like the thousands of years religious knowledge from human history is suddenly and simply a stupid idea. Religion today is openly mocked, ridiculed, and punch-lined and is being broadcasted as a breeding ground for bigotry and backward-thinking. And the vocal minority is doing an unfortunately effective job of making religion seem vile. True practitioners of religion know that love and compassion for all of humanity is at the core of their thinking and teaching, but their turn-the-other-cheek mentality makes them an easy target for insults.
As a generation, we have an obligation to keep religion alive and technology has a powerful ability to keep it so. We need not be embarrassed by belief, but rather we ought to be sharing it and discussing it in whatever communicative platform we have available. Religious silence in a world of ubiquitous information is swiftly removing its ability to stay within the cultural consciousness. And as religion dies in our conversations and cultural realities, so also dies our desire to practice self-restraint and neighborly love. Without religion, as we’ve seen in contemporary ways of thinking, we become accepting of nearly any lifestyle or practice—not because we believe those lifestyles and choices bring shared joy to humanity as a whole, but because we believe self-gratifying choice is a right that should trump the collective good.