For some years now, every gaming con I’ve been to has been flooded by a sea of pre-pubescent boys in Creeper hoodies. In the last few Insomnia events, organizers have thoughtfully provided an “adult daycare” area. In this tiny oasis of normalcy, tired and bored parents can have a drink and a massage while their kids go around buying overpriced foam Minecraft swords. Outside, the Yogscast and Hat Films signing lines go on for miles.
Annoying as this can be, is it a bad thing?
No, I don’t think it is.
I grew up in the 80s and 90s, before the widespread use of the Internet. Children and teens could only consume the media that was fed to them. It was Transformers for boys, and My Little Pony for girls, and you better be happy with that because the means to research backlogs of media alternatives did not exist.
Once kids hit their teens, pop stars replaced cartoons. And again, God help you if you didn’t like what was available. You consumed that media because that’s all you knew existed. You bought the merchandise and pretended to like these things even if you didn’t, because everyone else did too. What else were you going to talk about? Social cohesion was much tighter then because of this, but discernment and critical thinking were not so keen. Even today, I have to stop and ask myself if I’m consuming a particular piece of media because I enjoy it, or if it’s because I feel like I should. The media young people were given always had a corporate agenda backing it. Cartoons were for selling toys, and pop stars for albums. This is perfectly illustrated in how all of 90s pop songs were written by the same Swedish guy, Martin Sandberg, also known as Max Martin.
Never heard of him? What about Westlife, Pink, Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Celine Dion, Avril Lavigne, Taylor Swift, and Katy Perry? Ever wondered why so many pop songs sound so Engrish-y and pretty much the same? Yeah, he wrote all their music. It was all about cranking out albums, never about the music itself or enriching consumers’ lives.
So back to what is happening now. First, the games themselves. Notice how the games that children tend to gravitate towards are creative sandboxes like Minecraft and Roblox? This in itself shows a desire for agency. Then they invest plenty of attention watching other people experience these games on Youtube too. Note that this is their choice. Out of all the games out there, and all the TV shows and cartoons, many children prefer to watch everyman geeks play sandbox games on the Internet.
Modern Internet and gaming culture lets them choose. They can put their allowances where their choices are. If they find that a channel is not for them, they can look for another that resonates with them. They can even trade watching popular channels for their schoolfriends’. True genuinity is being bred this way, without the external meddling of corporations that rely on ignorance to push their sales agendas.
For instance, Tube Heroes is something that would never had happened in my generation. A toy lined based on a bunch of nerds from the Internet? I’ve seen people make fun of these toys, but personally, I am filled with awe.
Some gaming channels have also began to understand the impact they have on young peoples’ lives. It’s becoming more and more common for Youtubers who usually only record videos about games or cartoons to post educational material. Check out this series by the Extra Credits team, called Extra History:
They do this out of a genuine desire to contribute positively towards their audiences’ lives. Even if GI Joe or Transformers had PSAs at the end of each episode, they still felt out-of-touch and corporate, and hardly helpful. This kind of feedback loop we’re seeing on Youtube is a wonderful, wonderful thing.
Does this shift have downsides, though? Of course it does. Four that I can think of, in fact. Please note that this is not me criticising children. As someone who is part of the next parenting generation, I just feel it’s important to look before stepping out. It’s not enough to applaud young people’s achievement in breaking free from the restraints that hindered their parents, it’s also necessary to understand the challenges they face. Otherwise we’ll end up as out-of-touch as a Care Bears PSA that lectures on problems adults think kids ought to have versus those that they actually struggle with. That’s a fast-lane track to losing credibility with them while at the same time being amazingly unhelpful.
First, the society of this emerging generation is going to be very fragmented before it coalesces. Pools of Internet subcultures will need to grow larger before individuals can find each other to form functioning communities. The process will cause an enormous cultural gap between their generation and mine. Today’s parents of small children are going to have very little in common with them when they grow up. Isolation is going to be a big problem, too. I have no cure to suggest except for advising better parental involvement in children’s interests. But that too may be difficult due to how fast things are changing. People from other generations just might not have the mental resources to cope. Which brings me to how…
Second, it’s going to affect my children’s children as well. Today’s kids are growing up treating information as discardable. Since the Internet is an ephemeral medium, with sites coming and going, they have a zen attitude towards information loss.The vastness and ephemerality of the Internet makes them very aware that their time and attention are limited resources. Archiving is a thing of the past, and the emerging sentiment is that information is to be consumed, not retained. Services such as the Wayback Machine provide a great archive resource, but I do fear it’s not enough. With data becoming so short-lived, how are my grandchildren and great-grandchildren going to learn from past mistakes? Keep in mind I am not talking about personal information collection, I’m talking about more mundane things like the Space Jam website, for instance. Objects like these can give future generations a cultural context of how they became what they are. What are my grandkids’ reference points going to be if everything is forgotten so quick? Think I’m overblowing the situation? Watch any episode of the Kids React to Technology series. Here’s my favorite, where they expose a group of children and teens to the Nintendo Gameboy then record their reactions to it.
They are utterly baffled by something ubiquitous to people just a few years older. Half of the kids are even hostile to it. Pay attention to how one of the little boys asks the presenter, “you kept it, but why?”
With information sparking out so fast, how are they going to connect to other generations? Are we doomed to a future of cultural isolation? The problem is not so much this in itself, but how easily people with missing cultural identities can be exploited. For example, everyone knows about how memes are being printed on just about everything and then marketed to kids.
But how many of the children that buy this merchandize know the characters were created by deviantART user Whynne? Most just think they spawned authorless on the Internet. This is an innocuous example, but modern Internet culture is still young. Imagine this lack of cultural context but amplified by one or two more decades.
Third, Internet culture has created a kind of cynicism and sociopathical attitude that comes with hyper-self-awareness. It’s like kids are downright terrified of being intellectually judged and stereotyped. Some people I’ve talked to blame Something Awful, others 4Chan or Reddit or just social media in general. Personally, I think it’s a result of post-90s economic disillusionment. It can’t be a coincidence that the most bitter of Internet-active kids are the ones that lived through both the dot-com crash and the recession. Since before my time, kids’ innocence and lack of experience have made them easy targets for everything from scapegoating to marketing. Today’s children educate themselves through the Internet, and as a result, they are much wiser to it. And let me tell you, they’re terrified. They know that capitalist abuses of Boomers and X-geners caused the strife they have felt most their lives. Unlike kids in my time, they also know there are alternatives to biting the exploitation bullet. Because information mutates so fast, it’s considered bad taste to not be aware of changes, even on an hourly basis. Inside jokes (“memes”) begin and become obsolete within a day, usually because by then they’re already being integrated in corporate PR and advertising. While a meme is active, it’s imperative to take part in it to show social participation. Once it ceases, one must then erase all evidence that participation occurred. And yes, I am convinced this is closely tied to the disposability of content. I don’t think the compulsion to follow Internet trends is so much derived from wanting to “keep up with the Joneses”, like in my time, as it is a result of financial anxiety. Young people do not want to be appear ignorant and controllable to those who might want to exploit them. Recession-time corporativism, which is deeply cynical in itself, made them expect it. Perhaps keeping up with memes helps them feel like they’re escaping or in control of their real-life instability. It’s like they’re saying,
“This is something that defines me as being apart from you. You can’t control it, and you can’t hurt me. I’m proving this something’s legitimacy by investing a large amount of energy into it, even if it is unhealthy to me.”
Overall this has a negative effect, as it undermines the genuinity that comes with having the freedom of media choice. For example, I remember as a teen being deathly afraid that the fictional characters in my stories could be seen as idealized (“Mary Sues”). At the time, in the mid-00s, this was a social hysteria that touched most young artists. It seriously damaged my creative ability and even a friendship or two (sorry Emma!) As an adult I can see it for what it was, a social manifestation of anxiety and cynicism. The Mary Sue thing lasted years, but modern memes can last only hours. Every day is a new pressure. I don’t think there’s a chance parents can keep up to help, this is something that needs to be resolved at the roots. Adults need to stop seeing children as fodder. There’s nothing wrong with inside jokes, but I do hope one day it’ll be okay for kids to not have to constantly prove themselves.
Fourth, the issue of attention deficits caused by information overload. This commercial for Bing might give you an idea of what I mean:
In the video, a woman asks a man for directions. Affected by unmanaged Internet exposure, he begins spouting large volumes of incoherent and tangentially-related information, unable to answer the woman’s actual question. The amount of information people are subjected to on the Internet is unprecedented, and children might be developing focus deficits from having to filter through so much data to pick out what’s relevant. It’s not that they’re stupid, on the contrary. They know their attention is a limited and valuable resource. This problem is caused by the opposite of having too little information, but it may not actually be that bad. Nicholas Carr from Harvard University wrote The Shallows, a psychology study of how the Internet affects brain changes. He claims that while young people are losing the ability to slow-read, their filtering and skimming skills are much higher than their parents’ and grandparents’. And personally, I think this is a good thing. With good skimming comes the ability to see behaviour patterns. It’s making kids savvy to marketers, swinders, and corporate liars who do not have their best interest at heart. They can tell an artist (or let’s player) that creates their content out of love from one that has a board of directors behind them.
I didn’t bring those four points to shit on kids, but to help show the pressures and challenges they face. If you’re thinking of being a parent, or if you’ve got a small child, then it’s probably wise to not ignore these social environments. My generation may have had its wings clipped, but this next one might just have the knowledge to set things right. They’ve learned from an early age that they can choose what media they consume, and simultaneously, that they don’t owe shit to the system that failed their parents.
Think about that next time you see a kid in a Minecraft hoodie.