Wednesday 21 August 2019

Liz Kearney: 'Pre-internet kids anything but innocent'

Notebook

'From what the statistics tell us, today’s young people wait longer to start sexual relationships (this is true globally). They drink less alcohol than their parents’ generation and, thankfully, they smoke far less' (stock photo)
'From what the statistics tell us, today’s young people wait longer to start sexual relationships (this is true globally). They drink less alcohol than their parents’ generation and, thankfully, they smoke far less' (stock photo)
Liz Kearney

Liz Kearney

Did you have an innocent youth? If you were born in the 1970s, you might be surprised to learn that's how it's being described.

The phrase 'the last of the innocents' has been coined to capture the experience of those born in the mid to late part of that decade, and who are now the last generation to have grown up without access to the internet.

It featured in a 'Guardian' article this week, used by Elizabeth Denham, the UK's Information Commissioner, where it evoked long, halcyon days, before the tyranny of the screen and smartphone, when young people enjoyed simple fun without a Tinder or a SnapChat or an Instagram in sight.

In a Reddit thread sparked by the piece, posters waxed lyrical about their carefree youth before digital culture took hold. They remembered endless days spent exploring the woods on their bikes, not having to be home until darkness fell. They described happier, more simple times when they weren't oppressed by the constant pursuit of the 'like' button.

That all sounds very nice. Idyllic, even. And also, not universally true. Because if you asked me to describe the experience of my pre-internet generation, innocent is one of the last words I'd use.

Being a teenager was always a massive popularity contest, long before Instagram. Rave culture, defined largely by illegal drug-taking, and ladette culture, defined largely by drinking copious amounts of beer, defined the 1990s and were invented by people born in the seventies.

Teenage pregnancies in Ireland peaked in 1999, a statistic which might owe a lot to a lack of access to contraception but is also a reminder that sex existed long before Tinder.

Without the internet to keep us in our bedrooms, we got into all kinds of real, non-imaginary trouble. It was fun, it was stupid, but it definitely wasn't innocent. And what of the generation that came before? The baby boomers, a generation who came of age in the swinging sixties, practically invented sex, drugs and rock and roll, as they never tire of telling us.

Today, now that many Gen X-ers are parents ourselves, observing the antics of today's teens can feel like a lesson in how to be straight-laced.

"They're just so boring," said one mum I know as she rounded up a sober group of 17-year-olds and dropped them to the ice-cream shop where they spent the evening. "It's great for me as a parent, but I do wonder what happened to their rebellious streak."

So could equating innocence with the pre-internet era be massively misleading?

From what the statistics tell us, today's young people wait longer to start sexual relationships (this is true globally). They drink less alcohol than their parents' generation and, thankfully, they smoke far less. True, there is an emerging obesity crisis, but many are far more health conscious; almost half of vegans globally are between the ages of 15 and 34. And many have made a real mark in the field of environmental activism and sustainability.

So which generation looks more innocent to you? Has the internet really ruined everything? Not everyone thinks so. The TV presenter Konnie Huq, who is married to 'Black Mirror' creator Charlie Brooker, was interviewed recently about her parenting style. When asked about screentime for her two boys, aged five and seven, her reply was eye-opening.

"All the other mums are like, 'we only let ours have half an hour of screen time'," she said, "but if Charlie had his way it would be 'we only let ours have half an hour off screen time.' He's read up on it all and says there are no studies that show this stuff is bad for you. It's the future."

Charlie's right, it is the future. It's already here. And perhaps it's not as scary as we think.

Irish Independent

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