In Defense of Childhood

Sammy Kelner on teens, adults, and technology

In 1982, Neil Postman argued that the idea of childhood was being destroyed. So too, the idea of what it meant to be an adult. While the invention of childhood is actually a recent event in the West according to Postman, it is also one we destroyed relatively quickly. At one point in the past, there was a distinct line between a child and an adult, and this line was certain knowledge kept secret through literacy. Postman argued almost forty years ago that adulthood and childhood were becoming indistinguishable once again due to technology. His diagnosis is even more relevant to our present moment, as the situation has gone from bad to worse. 

Technology has replaced many opportunities for parents to interact with their children and is quickly becoming the new normal. Phones are often a replacement for many of the responsibilities that previously used to be a parent’s, like help with homework, family time, or learning about adult behavior. Children’s free time no longer includes as many hours in fresh air playing games, but is taken over by watching screens. Staying home may seem like a safer alternative to roaming neighborhoods with friends, but technology, while possibly making parent’s lives easier in some ways, opens a whole new world of problems that would not have been possible without these devices. Screens have become a constant tutor and babysitter for children, but this is preventing children from learning skills or life lessons that a screen can not teach.  

In my current generation, we have replaced all authority with a smartphone. The need to communicate with our parents has diminished because once we discovered that the internet had the answers to all our questions, we believe that we no longer need to have conversations with them. When children have access to all the information adults have, according to Postman, there is no more childhood. And I agree. 

Children (and to be clear, I mean teenagers as well) believe that they know everything adults know, or that they know more than adults. There is a power struggle between children and adults over knowledge and who knows more. Parents used to be seen as an authority on the world and how to behave well in it. But now many children simply disrespect parents and teachers, believing that they can find any information they need, making them just as informed as adults. Things that were previously valuable, such as lectures from teachers or parents, have lost all meaning to teenagers, as they believe they do not need to pay attention to these important lessons since they can Google it later. On the whole, children and teens disrespect their parents, teachers, and other authority figures all because they believe they have access to the information that they want. And they assume it is correct.

So can we bring childhood back, and if so, how?

Respect. When teens realize that a certain skill or piece of information can not be accessed through the internet, they tend to trust or respect the person in charge. This is often why a child values and respects their sport’s coach more than their teachers. Because teens can Google much of the information that their teachers are presenting, they feel that it is a waste of their time. In the case of coaches, there is more trust and respect because it is not as easy (or in some cases impossible) to acquire the skills and knowledge one needs without training well with an expert. However, teens need to realize that Google does not eliminate the need for parents and teachers. Even if teens can find facts and statistics online, we need adults to help us understand and analyze those facts. We need adults for guidance.

Google can’t put those facts together in a meaningful way. Google can’t teach us how or why; Google can not teach us how to behave well or how to think critically. Parents, teachers, and authority figures are not obsolete, and they still should have incredibly significant roles in our lives. They teach us how to make good decisions, how to navigate the world, and important life lessons that help us realize not only how to act but why. Children and teens actually want to know why information matters, and we need adults to help us understand the world.  

Teenagers need to realize that guidance and advice can not be found on the internet, and they need to recognize the significance of parental figures in their lives. Parents must openly and willing to talk to them and guide them. While it’s true that most teens will push back or fight this assertion of authority, I believe we actually need it. To be a child means you know you need help to learn and to grow, and that you are not alone. 

Technology continues to have an increased large role in teenager’s lives, but the role of parents and teachers will never be replaced. Technology can not replace human connection and meaningful relationships. Even when a parent tells you something you don’t want to hear, chances are, they’re probably right.  So be grateful for all the adults who help guide you and help you understand life. It’s time for children to be children again and accept we don’t know everything. 

Sammy Kelner is a high school sophomore. In Winter 2020, she participated in Harvard Model Congress and was a staff writer for her school paper. She is currently the student President of Key Club, and she is interested in social justice work. She writes regularly for The Teen Mag.