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My Turn: Tangled in a wired world

“Grandma! Attack!” her 10-year-old grandson commands. Grandma is armed with a small, plastic figurine and two remotes angled at the TV screen. Her figurine is Whirlwind, an elfish, bird-like creature, one of the few without claws, fangs or a bazooka. Her grandson has chosen Flashwing, who is already posed on a stool and set for virtual adventure. The screen opens on to a montage of boulders, volatile bushes and an eerie sound track.
“Attack, Grandma attack!” the grandson says again with greater urgency. Grandma is supposed to push one of six buttons on her hand-held gizmo. She is required to make Whirlwind move up or down, right or left in order to negotiate pending threats. Currently, Whirlwind is going in circles and about to crash into a wall that came out of nowhere. She finds that she cannot coordinate buttons and negotiate orientation and at the same time coordinate incoming visual stimuli and instant drama. In short order, the grandson must commandeer her remotes, along with his own, to be fully operational.
Grandma settles back in her chair and breathes easier. She is off the hook.
What does it mean, to become fluent in the interactive media age? Does fluency require a level of new-fangled neural wiring? Is this gymnasium of high-speed performance an evolutionary bonus or a potential crash site? Both? It is clear that our children and grandchildren are honing a digital dexterity that is hard to imagine, never mind imitate. I read that by 2010, two-thirds of children between ages 4 and 7 had used a smartphone and that toddlers, still in diapers, are now playing “Duck Duck Moose” on a touch screen iPad.
A young friend, who works with inner city youth, explained how much recruitment into their organization has changed in recent years. It used to be sports that lured the kids to after-school programs. Now it’s video games. Years ago, he noted, many of the youth were devoted athletes, able to outthrow and outlast their elders. Now most of his teens are unable to run a mile, hit a fastball or dunk a basketball. They are out of shape and grow breathless way before their older mentors, but buzz through the X-Box gaming. Putting aside a rush to judgment, we seem to be witnessing a seismic transformation.
This grandma is becoming like her own grandmother was — old-fashioned and out of step with her world. This grandma thinks a “hash tag” is something you eat at a diner; an “app” is, well … it’s ... it’s something kids whine to get for their birthday and a “tweet,” well, duh, birds tweet, right? She needs the serious patience of the younger generation to negotiate her new laptop computer and cell phone. By the time she finishes texting a message to tell her granddaughters where to meet, they have already met. She doesn’t really know the difference between iPhones, iPads and iPods. She’s sure that a smartphone would easily outsmart her. In fact, it’s easier and easier to feel less and less smart in the presence of all this digital technology.
“Grandma, you just need to practice,” her grandson says with a sudden spurt of generosity as he rescues Whirlwind and Flashwing from demolition. Grandma knows she will not practice. Instead, she suggests, “Next time, let’s go snowshoeing.” “At least,” she thinks, “I can still put one foot in front of the other.”

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For more on the subject, I’d recommend Hana Rosin’s fascinating article on young children and technology in the latest issue of Atlantic magazine. (It’s available online and I’m impressed that I know that!) Rosin explores the latest brain research and takes a balanced approach on the subject.
Ruth Charney is a Greenfield resident.

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