Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A Different Digital Divide

I have been spending quite a bit of time looking at what tweens and teens are doing with their families in digital media that I haven't been looking the other way -- older.

So I walked right into the fan blade of family yesterday.

Two of my older relatives visited us the other weekend and had the "fun" of experiencing a normal weekend with me, my husband, and my several tween and teen children. We ate meals together, but otherwise were in different rooms of the house, doing projects, using computers, fixing desks, and for my relatives, watching TV.

I got an earful from them yesterday about the experience. Now, we thought all the differing activity quite normal. Our relatives wanted to watch as many minutes as possible of the basketball tournament and took over the high def TV in the living room. We aren't a basketball household (sorry). So I spent my sadly normal hour a day catching up with emails and other online correspondence, but did bring my laptop into the living room to spend time with them, despite the game. My children quietly spun to other sections of the house, either reading or doing quiet online activities. In fact, one of my children sewed a lovely dress from a pattern, one of her first adventures doing that.

Instead of the older relatives being appreciative that they were given peace to watch the sports games, they evidently were furious. They thought it incredibly rude that I was using my laptop, despite the fact that I was doing work and they were not interested in anything that I wanted to do. To them, television is the ultimate group activity and they were truly offended that I was spending any time on the computer while they were visiting...and watching my own television. They expressed no interest in anything that was going on in our lives or wanting to talk. For these relatives in their 60's and 70's, the television was the ongoing center of activity and we should not be doing digital activities while they were visiting.

I would entirely agree -- if we were avoiding talking, walking, visiting, or other social activities. But it was fascinating how our own family digital divide opened up. These are adults whose media activities focus around local TV news and national sports. Our lives revolve around school and kid activities, outdoors and nature, kid sports, crafts, and creating and consuming digital media. When I first entered this family 20+ years ago, I had to work in the social matrix of what the elder relatives thought was normal for a planned "together" weekend.

The fascinating fact is that this divide had existed for years! At family gatherings, I would bring a book and slink into a corner. (I know, my bad.) I hadn't dealt with the lack of mutual interests as it was an obvious barrier and I didn't think it would change.

The amazing thing was that replacing the book with a laptop caused such ire and discontent. And that the social center circle of the television as the family digital hearth was deemed to be of such higher social superiority....for sports and local news. If we were watching socially meaningful drama or cultural commentary, and talking over the shared experience, I could see it. Or if we were having fun times with family humor or education that we were talking about, I get it.

I smile at myself with all of this. Should I have been on the laptop, doing work to avoid the friction (and the games)? No, I should have not been avoiding the 20-year-old situation and actually talked about what I really wanted to do. I could have pushed back finally to request or find some common ground of interests. (We could have DVR'ed the games, but that was beyond their patience and understanding.)

But who has the right to say what is "right" in family social circles with media? Are families actively discussing it? Or are they assuming that "what always has been" is ok or that "separate media" has become the norm?

How are we setting family discussions on what is community interest and activities? How are we not just including our tweens and teens, but also our seniors? And who has family priorities to set the media-consuming agenda for the family community?

And how do we deal with the pride that exists in certain people not understanding technology? Weekly I hear adults fluffing off use of digital media in the "I don't understand that thing and it isn't worth my time" in over 40 in non-office based social circles. And I got that from these relatives -- even though I make much of my living from Internet-based activities, it is (vocally) of no interest to them at all.

Do they need to understand it? Are we trying hard enough to be inclusive of parents and grandparents? Are these challenges just reflective of intergenerational tensions that have bubbled for generations past, but now we have all these cool avoidance and separation tools? Or can we use some of them -- email, digital photos -- to nurture the connectivity of all this stuff to be family empowerment and glue?

I'll probably be stuck together with better glue when I know my elder relatives are (a) all willing to own a computer (not all are willing to now), and (b) willing to check their emails more than once/month.

At the same time, I'm just getting my middle child to introduce himself nicely on the telephone and my oldest to realize that emails can be used really communicate well and influence decisions...and that spreadsheets can be used to organize school and scout group projects...

Boy, this is all hard work!! ;)