Today's youth can’t afford luxury of ignorance
By LISA SMITH MOLINARI | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: November 6, 2020
When I was in college, my main concerns were keeping my checking balance over $50, taming my unruly bangs, learning how to survive on ramen and finding a date. Unencumbered by the realities of responsible adulthood — mortgages, taxes, cholesterol, corporate ladders, insurance, in-laws — I was free to explore my own personal interests, preferences and philosophies on my own timeline.
I was also free to make my own mistakes, which I did quite frequently.
Our two daughters, Anna (22) and Lilly (20), are now in that same stage of young adulthood, when independence outpaces wisdom. As classic “military brats” who lived in multiple locations including overseas, our girls believe they’ve had enough life experience to make their own choices without any guidance.
As parents, we try to give them free rein, which is frustrating because they still live under our roof, don’t pay rent, and say things like, “Mom, just so you know, we need more crumbled goat cheese and Pantene conditioner.” But we bite our lips because we know that they must learn for themselves like we did, on their own time.
One night at dinner, Anna mentioned that she’d seen the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma.” The four of us had a rather intellectual discussion about it, a rarity at Molinari family dinners, which generally involve mindless banter about such things as chunky versus creamy peanut butter.
Anna had found the documentary to be a frighteningly realistic exposé about how big tech companies’ search and social media platforms encourage extremism and divisiveness in our modern culture. The film suggests that “[a]lgorithms promote content that sparks outrage, hate, and amplifies biases within the data that we feed them.” Experts have identified new online mechanisms resulting from the effects of technology, such as hashtag hijacking, information manipulation, social media homophily and “filter bubbles” in which internet users are fed only media that reinforces their worldview.
A worrier by nature, Anna said that she was having trouble sleeping, thinking about the implications of technology’s influence on society. “What scares me the most is the effect that social media has on political views, because algorithms can’t differentiate fact from fiction,” she said between bites of salad.
Even Lilly, who lives in the moment and doesn’t think much about the future, chimed in with her own concerns. She said that many of her friends were posting extreme opinions about political and racial issues on social media. She described feeling underlying pressure to “like” or “share” such posts, for fear that she might lose friends just by being silent on issues that she doesn’t know much about.
My husband and I couldn’t allay our daughters’ fears, because we were worried, too. We are from the last generation of parents who weren’t raised with the internet and social media technology. We simply don’t understand what it is like for our own kids to grow up under the constant influence (and arguably, manipulation) of search platforms, social media, personal data trafficking and artificially intelligent algorithms.
Although our daughters are young adults, fully capable of forming their own opinions about serious issues facing our nation and the world, they have not been afforded the luxury of mindlessness that we experienced at their age. After turning 18, I was in no rush to understand political and social issues. I was too busy forming my adult personality, sorting through insecurities and attending to my social life to read the newspaper or watch nightly news reports. Someday, I would know enough to make an informed decision, but all in due time.
Conversely, Millennials and Gen Zers’ developing brains have been bombarded with political messages, 24/7 news (and disinformation), and extreme opinions from a tender age. Statistics show that 90% of young adults use social media, and they use it for more than three hours each day. In many ways, this exposure has robbed them of the innocent ignorance of youth.
Our family discussion at dinner did not end in a parental lecture as one might expect. Instead, we all reached a sober general consensus that we should all spend less time on the internet. And that crunchy peanut butter is definitely the best.