I saw Bo Burnham's wonderfully empathetic movie, "Eighth Grade" recently. It's a coming-of-age movie which depicts the complicated business of growing up in the digital age, and with anxiety. The more I reflect on it, the more I think every parent of young children should go and see it. Parents of older children should go and see it with their children, and have a conversation afterwards. We've had to wait a long time for a think piece on social media that has nuance, and Burnham, who started his career as a 16 year old on YouTube, delivers one thanks to his specific perspective.
As an anxious introvert, Kayla, the central character, has to navigate the cognitive dissonance of the curated "Kayla" that she presents online and her significantly less self-assured IRL self. She is certainly addicted to her screens, in the casual, but absolute way that most teens (and, let's face it, many adults) are. Burnham, however, resists any temptation to be didactic. The strain of it is wholly there, but so is its pervasiveness. Ultimately, social media is a culture in which our young people and, we all, exist and it cannot be denied. Some scenes allow for the viewer’s interpretation. I like to think that Kayla's disfluent YouTube videos articulate a kind of manifesto for the kind of person she'd like to be: one who recognises her own strengths and has more self-esteem and confidence. She's not there, yet (and she further refines her message in her second time capsule "message from the past"), but she's stating her goals and taking proactive steps (and missteps, of course) towards them.
As useful and nourishing as I found the film, I was not an anxious child and, falling somewhere between "Xennial" or "Generation X", the complexities of reconciling online and offline existences with adolescence did not resonate. "Social media", in my day, revolved around the reassuring curves and heft of the cream coloured rotary phone, parked in the corner of our living room. I conversed with friends for long hours, switching ears to allow the sweat to evaporate, winding and unwinding the coiled cord around a finger and feeling the impress of the handset on my ear, long after it had been replaced (giving little thought to the enormous phone bills that would follow and my poor Mum's feelings about that).
From the far distant future of my adulthood, I can hardly imagine what we talked about. Everything? Nothing? We just hung out, tenuously linked by a twisted pair of copper wires, but I recall how...satisfying it was. I remember one friend in particular, a boy (because in my early teens, I hung out mainly with boys). He lived a complicated life which, over the course of many hours and days, we attempted to resolve into something less painful, until he decided that I was the answer. Those marathon calls seem incredible now, where an unsolicited call arrives like an insult.
We also had no computer at home. The only person I knew with a home computer was my best friend, Kelly. Her dad worked in IT and had a BBC Micro set up behind the sofa in his living room. We were far more likely to set up over-complicated role-playing games like "travel agent", complete with hand-drawn posters and incomprehensible, authentic forms donated by a real agent, or choreographed dance routines to the Bangles' "Manic Monday". But sometimes, we played rounds and rounds of Chuckie Egg, stopping only when violet ladders and green platforms floated before us like a weird augmented reality. We played Space Invaders, too. I loved/hated the way it caused the thumping tempo of our hearts to increase in concert with the accelerating crunches of the game's soundtrack.
Another BBC Micro lurked in the corner of one of my middle school teacher's classrooms (the delightfully-named Mrs Truelove). It was exclusively used to play the educational adventure game, "Granny's Garden". In my mind’s eye, I can still see the oddly terrifying screen which appeared when you made a bad choice and the witch "got" you (my advice: don’t look in the pot). As a rule follower, I also remember the thrill of telling the computer that you didn’t want to go in the cave, or accept the smug blue raven’s help - quiet (and ultimately futile) acts of rebellion.
Throughout my primary and secondary years, my Speak & Spell or Little Professor stirred more emotions within me than any real computer that I encountered - unlike, perhaps, my husband and his best friend who were committed game players and then programmers in their youths. It needed the arrival of the internet to pique my interest in what I had previously considered either a glorified game box or word processor. For me, that happened at university. Attracted by the novelty of the enterprise, I got an email address earlier than many of my peers (managing to snag the user name "diagnoalley" on Hotmail) and spent much more time in front of a screen. This was primarily because my dissertation was a literature review on gene therapy, so I conducted some of my research online, while my colleagues sweated over experiments in the lab. At this point in time, the page loading process provided ample opportunity to go and make the endless cups of tea that punctuated my studies.
If, as one of the "Eighth Grade" characters remarks, merely getting Snapchat in fifth grade (10-11 years) rather than as a freshman (14-15 years), results in being "wired differently", those of us who straddle the analogue and digital have a mountain to climb if we are to understand and support our young people in their digital adventuring. My children are still young, but this is absolutely terrain that we will have to navigate, particularly with our YouTube-obsessed youngest. I am a digitally and technologically-inclined adult, however, so perhaps that mountain is Ben Nevis, rather than Everest. In fact, as a 40 year old adult, I suppose I spend too much time online. But the last few years have been a lesson in not making sweeping generalisations when it comes to online activity. Being a special needs parent is an inherently isolating experience and also creates practical and logistical stumbling blocks in the path of real life connections. There is also the need to seek out shared experience, community, and information to guide the sometimes extreme form of parenthood that special needs demands. In these regards, the internet has been a sanity saver for me and, I know, for many others in my position. As a side note, while Spike's social communication difficulties means that he has achieved his ten years without any interest in using social media in a functional way, I am optimistic that it might facilitate friendships for him in the future.
The ultimate message of "Eighth Grade" is delivered lightly: real life moments - an emotionally-charged look, the instant in which you recognise a kindred spirit, receiving an act of kindness - trump the empty dopamine thrill of an Instagram like, and that I know.
*If you haven’t seen Robert Montgomery’s work before, do check it out. It’s all the things - architectural, situationist, lyrical, stark, beautiful.
Want to read more? Random acts of kindness in Minecraft