I call her Miss Thumbs. I saw her only once, at a restaurant. But I will never forget her. She was 20 months old, but Miss Thumbs could already work a mobile device like a fighter pilot. She used her two tiny digits to cajole the screen into online games, cartoons, and an episode of Sesame Street.
Her parents ate in peace. Parent and child never looked at each other.
Mary Aitken, cyber psychologist (yes, that’s a profession) is concerned about all this. In the paper “Cyber Babies: The Impact of Emerging Technology on the Developing Infant,” she and her co-authors explain what many of us analog grandparents already suspect. Babies in a digital world make and have less eye contact with their parents and other humans.
By age three, one third of our kids have TVs in their bedrooms. And it is in cyberspace that they learn to play and to relate to others—and where their undeveloped brains are building permanent neural connections. How they hear, see, speak, think and especially form a sense of self is developed while spending time online, in video communication, or through social media.
It isn’t only babies who are affected. Cognitive scientists have found that technology impacts the memory capacity of millennials, now age 22 to 37, although it’s not clear whether this will in the long run hurt them, help them or neither. What is clear is that today’s young adults are developing neurologically differently from any pre-cyber generation.
Meanwhile Cyberbabies: A Musical Dot.Comedy, debuted this year as a sendup of cool ways to make money in cyber tech at the turn of the millennium. Actors playing web pioneers sang toe tapping tunes like “Virtual Virgins” and “Eaten by the Internet.”
Fair warning, millennials: You will be left in the dust by my nine-month-old granddaughter’s generation. Little Hudson’s doctors have digitized her since day one. They know her every biological move. Through an app, they learn how much weight she gained, how much nourishment she takes each day, how often she gets up at night, the length of her naps.
By the time Hudson is a teenager, there will be a chip implanted under her skin to telegraph her heartbeats, catalogue the bacteria in her urine, and report on the pressure her blood exerts on her arteries. Think I’m exaggerating? Nah. The FDA approved human microchip implants as far back as 2004 when it cleared the marketing of the “VeriChip” for medical purposes. The market (meaning people who hadn’t grown up with such technology) wasn’t ready for this phenomenon. Hudson and her friends will have no qualms about it. And her implanted chip will also allow her to pay for purchases, turn lights on (and off) and start a car, navigate around town, and avoid ex-boyfriends when it detects their chips in proximity.
This may mean better healthcare. It may also mean the end of privacy for our grandchildren, with all the psychological problems that information vulnerability can bring. Like Miss Thumbs, Hudson will most likely not give the world of digitalization a second thought. She will see it as just one way that life is made easier.
What if a scamming scanner hacks her chip just as they now hack websites? Although Uncle Sam committed $139 million in grants way back during the Bush administration to develop electronic record keeping, no federal government agency regulates chipping. California, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin have banned involuntary chipping (such as by employers). Several other states have laws pending.
Perhaps privacy is not important in a virtual world? In the book, made into a movie, Ready Player One, the protagonist hides his identity behind his avatar. But virtual protection is in reality imperfect. (And when he is discovered, he goes on the run.)
As grandparents, we should care about the extent that technology is taking over. This doesn’t make us old fashioned. It makes us wise. We can try to speak our thoughts. It won’t be easy. Telling our children and grandchildren to slow down their tech engagement makes us sound like people with horses and buggies badmouthing the use of cars. Telling them that reality is more significant than virtual reality sounds like sour grapes because when we were younger, we had nothing as obviously cool as VR.
But we can vote with our pocketbooks. On Ventura Boulevard in L.A., there is a place where children can morph into robots for two hours. They can choose from several other virtual reality selections as well. Cyber birthdays are replacing ice skating rinks and even laser tag, which involves technology but also actual great exercise as you run around like a maniac and shoot actual other people.
Maybe on Hudson’s birthday I will take her to the zoo, instead. What a concept. For a day, just for a change, I will leave my mobile device and tablet at home. I will feel naked without my cell phone. Even unsafe. I will be unable to take photos. Maybe this is not such great idea, after all.
I must ultimately ask, if even an analog grandma like me is so dependent on technology, what can I expect of a Cyber Baby?