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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

'Recombinant art,' life?: Parenting & the digital drama overload

As Moby does with other people's sounds and musical phrases, David Shields does with words, saying that mashing up other people's words (or "recombinant" art) is much more interesting than creating fiction, which is sort of an appropriation of Mark Twain's "reality is stranger [more interesting?] than fiction." "Mr. Shields’s book consists of 618 fragments, including hundreds of quotations taken from other writers like Philip Roth, Joan Didion and Saul Bellow," the New York Times reports. That's a huge contentious subject – copyright, intellectual property, fair use, etc. – important and fascinating, but it's only about content. What about the other part of new media? Moby, Shields, and other mass-media natives are gutsy, but they're focused merely on content at a time when there's a lot more going on in media. Much more interesting for our (parents') purposes is the behavioral part: all the sociality we – especially youth in the pressure-cooker social environment of school life – are constantly observing, appropriating, and mashing up with the help of social digital media.

We are remixing and creating a recombinant reality that is pressing in upon us with the same constancy, volume, and intensity as content is. Can you imagine a time in history when there was ever a greater need for media literacy than there is now, with our children growing up with online+offline, 24/7 exposure to the school, family, local, national, and international dramas of life – but, for them, especially school-related drama? Or a greater demand on all of us, too, for civility, perspective-taking, and respect for self, others, and community? If we can't model these for our children – at home and school, on phones and online – how can we teach them? If we keep fearing and blocking new media, we can't really be there for them in these tricky media waters. As they navigate both adolescence and the new-media space, they need breathers, reality checks, a sense of balance, and guidance (shore leave, buoys, dramamine, and a lighthouse, maybe? Sorry!), by which I mean:

  • Breathers. Breaks from "peer reality" (which can feel overwhelming) in the form of quiet conversations, hugs, and support in dealing with social-scene overload (aka The Drama) are better, more positive than a negative approach of taking away technology or media. Tech and media don't create drama, people do; rather, tech and media are drama-enhancers, -extenders, and -perpetuators. Restricting the latter can help sometimes, if the goal is helping kids get perspective, but it can also cut them off from friends and situations, when being plugged in has become a social norm for youth.
  • Reality checks. Our kids deserve reminders every now and then that the tsunami of school life they "wade" into everyday and then bring home on their phones and usually have on their screens while doing homework is not the all of reality: There is much more to life and much more to them. Much more to them than the role they play at school, where it's hard for them totally to be themselves.
  • Balance. This is pretty intuitive for parents, the need to help kids balance the activities in their lives – social, academic, onscreen, offscreen, etc. But go deeper. With constant exposure to friends' thinking, do kids have enough chances for the reflection and independent thought that help them figure out who they are in relation to it all? In "Always-on/Always-on-you: The Tethered Self," MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle writes, "The anxiety that teens report when they are without their cellphones ... may not speak so much to missing the easy sociability with others but of missing the self that is constituted in these relationships."
  • Guidance. This is intuitive for parents, too, but how do we offer that guidance? The command-and-control, sage-on-the-stage way, or as guide by the side? In today's media environment, the former simply doesn't work. Am I just being one of those overly permissive parents? No, I'm being realistic. With all the workarounds kids have to restrictions on their digital social tools, it's way too easy for them to break the rules and hack the parental controls. And the research backs me up – see the work of Prof. Sahara Byrne at Cornell University linked to in the third paragraph of "Soft power works better."

    Remixing content may lead to "recombinant art," a hybrid of fiction and nonfiction or an alternative altogether. But what about when we add to this recombinant content, constantly coming at us, the online/offline mashup of all the sociality – family, school, local, national, and international – we're also exposed to? I think we increasingly need to be very centered and mindful, very socially and media literate to stay firmly on course in our lives. Especially when some of us are still growing up. Let's be sure to support our children's developing tech literacy, media literacy, and life literacy! They never needed or deserved these skills and our support more.

    Related links

  • "The Digital Skeptic," Washington, D.C.-based technology-policy pundit Adam Thierer's review of Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto
  • "Clicks & cliques: Really meaty advice for parents"
  • "*Social* media literacy"
  • For media-literacy training, the best school libraries help develop filtering of a different sort, the kind that improves with age and goes with them wherever they go
  • "The age of remixes & mashups"
  • "Remixes & mashups: Study on fair use"

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