When she was 4, my daughter asked for her own YouTube channel. She said she wanted to make “videos of me making fings and other fun stuffs.”
“Who will watch them?” I asked, thinking her answer would be her grandmothers or cousins.
She rolled her eyes. “My fans, mom!”
Honestly, I thought I had more time before we had the talk — you know, the “Why You Can’t Have a YouTube Channel” conversation. Four seems a little young to me. But my daughter is a member of Generation Alpha, which is defined as children born after 2010. And for this generation, Wi-Fi is oxygen and data plans are as necessary as milk. Try explaining to anyone under the age of 7 why there isn’t internet at great-grandma’s house and you’ll understand. Technology isn’t just integrated into their lives; it is their lives.
When she was 2, she hopped into her Fisher Price car and said, “I’m going to da internet to see our friends.” A month ago, she watched me check my Twitter notifications and asked, “Do you not have hearts near your words because no one loves you?”
My daughter isn’t even 5, and yet she innately understands the internet in ways her grandmother cannot begin to fathom. When my husband and I turn on the camera so she can make a YouTube video of herself making Play-Doh dresses for her dolls, she automatically begins to engage: “Hi, fans!” she’ll say. “Today we are going to make a fantastic dress out of sparkle Play-Doh!”
She gives calls to action: “Please subscribe, fans!” or “Try this at home!”
How is she so instinctively fluent in a language that major companies and politicians have to hire “internet gurus” and “social-media experts” to understand? Perhaps it was a gestation period snuggled up close to my laptop. Perhaps it was babyhood, when I would bounce her with my foot while I typed and ran white noise on YouTube. But whatever it is that makes Generation Alpha instinctively understand social media, I don’t know how to parent it. I don’t know how to raise someone to navigate social media, because I can barely do it myself.
I was born of the AOL dial-up generation. I had a Geocities page when I was 16, replete with eight-bit inspirational music and quotes from Anne of Green Gables. And I’ve been making a living on the internet for nearly a decade — writing Twitter copy for marketing companies, moderating comments on a love and sex site, and writing about all aspects of my life for fun and profit. I even starred in some ill-fated and obnoxious YouTube videos myself. As such, I’d like to think I know what is at stake: to have the worst parts of you readily available in a Google search. To live with searing hate just a few clicks away.
My first negative experience with the internet came when I was 19. I had just started a blog and was reviewing books for a site called BlogCritics. I wrote a short post railing against the trend of bloggers asking for donations, and a popular writer (who had a donate button on her site) tore it to shreds. My traffic surged and I began to receive emails from people telling me that I was just a dumb little girl and I was worthless. One emailer found out where I went to college and threatened to get me kicked out of school. I had nightmares for weeks and eventually shut down my site. At 19, I had never experienced anything like it, unless you count Greg H. dumping his milk on me in the high-school stairwell in response to an article I wrote for the paper about boys being disgusting.
A few years later, I rejoined the internet and began writing and moderating comments for a love and sex site. Once, in a short blog post, I mentioned how I didn’t like the show Firefly. I received so much hate mail from that one admission, I wound up begging the site editors to take the post down. And that’s in addition to the numerous people over the years who have threatened me, called me a bad parent, or wished my children were dead.
But more than what people can do over social media, I’m afraid of what social media can do to a person — the narcissism and preening that I’ve fallen victim to time and again. I’ve lost so many hours of my life to FOMO obsessing and worrying about my “image.” Even at 33, I’m not above the occasional social-media huff. “Why can’t she share my articles? I shared hers!”
Navigating this space of multifaceted connections is stressful and terrifying and I’m an adult. So what do I say to a preschooler who wants to share with her “fans” how she makes cookies in her Girl Scout Cookie Oven? How do I tell her about the comments on my own YouTube videos that made me afraid to reply, even though it was my job?
Part of me wishes for the apocalypse. I envision myself sitting by a fire, knitting, telling my child of how I used to be someone on the internet once. By day, we’d wrestle with the land, instead of shouting at a screen. But of course the lives of our farming forebears weren’t exactly easy. And reverting to some kind of agricultural Eden isn’t a practical solution to Twitter stress. Instead, the reality is that the internet will grow in scope and complexity and our children will live lives that will fill us with fear and wonder.
My mother understands what this is like. My mom raised eight kids, of which I am No. 2. When the internet first came to our home, we had free reign. I popped in and out of chat rooms with total strangers and spent hours learning HTML. “I honestly had no clue what the internet could do or even was,” my mom admitted. “I didn’t know about chat rooms or internet searches and when I found out, I freaked out.” She had no idea that one of her children would meet their future spouse on the internet or that another would make her living from it.
To be honest, my mother’s experience terrifies me. Because it’s hard to teach technology when you suck at it. And no matter how millennial I am, I do suck at it. But I often find myself giving lectures about screen-time limits before I go check Twitter in the bathroom. Or I’ll declare a day “screen free” only to binge on Twitter after the kids are in bed. Sometimes, while my children play happily with their pillow forts in the living room, I’ll sneak upstairs to answer email.
But this is the place I’ve chosen to live my life, and while it terrifies me, it has also been richly rewarding. In February, I flew to Miami and Salt Lake City to spend time with some of the amazing women I’ve met online, people who have provided friendship and encouragement and professional advice on that little screen. While the internet has introduced me to the ugly side of humanity, it’s also shown me new people and new perspectives, which in turn have given me deep friendships and exciting opportunities.
And this is what my 4-year-old understands intuitively — the thing I have to keep reminding myself: The internet is real. It’s a portal to genuine lives and connections that cannot be shut off just by canceling a data plan or deleting an app from your phone. While we struggle to find balance between our lives and the internet, our children will see no distinction. And when this brave new world comes, perhaps they can show us how to live in it.