The Austin Chronicle

Help Desk

By Michael Agresta, August 14, 2015, Screens

:( Help!

I raised my daughter with limited access to technology, less than an hour of screen time a day. In a few weeks, she'll go off to college. Her father gave her an iPhone to mark the occasion. Without our supervision, she'll be immersed in the world of unlimited connectivity for the first time in her life. What advice should we give her?

– Getting Ready to Address Daughter

Before we get to GRAD's letter, an announcement: This will be our last "Help Desk" column for The Austin Chronicle. We'd like to extend our warmest thanks to our editors and to everyone who read and followed us during our yearlong run in these pages. We'll sign off with this, our valedictory for GRAD's daughter on the theme of how to live the good life online:

1) Don't read the feed. Depending on your interests and your level of social isolation (if, say, you just left your hometown to go to college), social media may be an important tool for keeping up old ties, building new ones, or just getting things off your chest. The best way to avoid social media angst – the toxic brew of bitterness, jealousy, FOMO, and self-recrimination that comes from too much time spent viewing the sanitized and embellished lives of others online – is to use social media primarily for conversation, not vain spectatorship. The best way to do that is to stop reading the feed, or to limit such activity to a certain time of day, for instance right after work. "Don't read the feed" can also be used more broadly as a mantra for life in our information-saturated times. Go out and curate your own experience of the world, online and off; don't let advertisers or aggregators do it for you.

2) Don't lose your pre-smartphone habits of mind. Is your daughter a devoted reader of books? Does she like to draw, or work out sans earbuds, without podcasts commanding her imagination? In the absence of the Internet, different people find different ways of exercising the pre-digital virtue of patience and unbroken attention. It's less important that your daughter practice any specific one of these habits than that she stay true to her pre-smartphone self. If she's a reader, for instance, she should make time to read books offline, without the distraction of smartphone dings. Our gadgets can change the way our brains work, and that's not always a bad thing. But there's convincing research out there showing that we're better off if we don't dispense altogether with our old-fashioned attention spans.

3) Expect whatever you share to be public forever – but don't let that stop you from expressing yourself. As a tech neophyte, your daughter faces a steep learning curve. She should be careful about sending salacious pictures, or otherwise sharing parts of herself that she might not want associated with her name 20 years from now – or 20 minutes from now. Still, times are changing. One side effect of our current information regime, where no online mistake is ever forgotten, is that we've become more aware that most people have a few embarrassing hits in their search history. The public-shaming lynch mobs can be intimidating, but, slowly but surely, the Internet is evolving us to simply care less about such things. Don't be afraid to speak up and test your voice online, especially if it's a topic you care deeply about. Messing up in public, and in the Internet's unerring memory, is just another part of growing up.

Speaking of the limitless memory of the Internet, our archives from the past year, all 25 biweekly columns, should live forever on the Chronicle's servers. See you there – and, hopefully, elsewhere soon. :) HD

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