The Internet and Social Media: A Curse On Our Kids? Not If They Are Caregiving Kids

“Things are seldom what they seem.”

(William S. Gilbert, 1836-1911)

Nearly twenty-five years have passed since I was first introduced to Sir William’s cautionary and somewhat wistful quote. Although I learned of it early in my graduate study of the mass media, it remains one of the most pertinent pieces of wisdom I’ve ever encountered, often in ways I hadn’t anticipated. Here’s a telling example, starting with the back-story:

As the decade of the 80’s came to a close, a scholarly debate raged across University Schools of Communication. Today the topic seems almost quaint: My professors, a generation of social scientists informed by the written word (i.e., newspapers), was doing it’s level best to convince students raised on – and by – television that there was more to the “Big Picture” than what we were watching on the “small screen”. Of course, in the strictest sense, they were right. For many reasons, televised depictions paint the world around us in quick, broad, stereotypical strokes, bereft of almost any measured, in-depth, analysis. But what stuck with me most was the clear sense that these learned, “older” men and women didn’t quite like the way my generation and the media were headed. Of course, all of this was well before cable and satellite television had penetrated nearly 90% of American homes, a time when personal computers and “mobile” phones were little more than a novelty, years before the Internet truly enveloped the globe, and just about the time Mark Zuckerberg, inventor of Facebook, was completing the first grade.

Fast-forward to the present, and the irony makes me cringe: Two decades into a career as a television producer, erstwhile writer, and public relations professional, I slowly find myself “not quite liking the direction in which things are headed”, particularly with regard to the nation’s youth and their strong affinity for social media. Despite my best efforts to refrain from the same form of “generationalism” I perceived among my professors all those years ago, I can’t help but wonder – much as they must have: “What’s with young people these days?” As an example, I’ve observed that my ten-year-old nephew would rather game remotely with some faceless kid halfway across the country than go outside and play stickball with the neighborhood kids, most of whom, no doubt, are engaged in some form of digital diversion of their own!

Of course it’s not just kids who seem to have been swept away by the technological tsunami. Careful not to ask a digital native who Norman Rockwell was, but were he to capture a portrait of the American household today, it might not seem so idyllic: Here’s Junior texting a friend at the dinner table, little Missy dying to get back to her Facebook, and oh yes, Mom too, with one eye on a TiVo’d soap opera or Dad last to the table, checking online, one last time, the value of his stock portfolio. We rightly can and should bemoan such a phenomenon, a family physically under the same roof, yet miles away from any true, human, face-to-face interaction.

Recently however, I’ve learned of a very special group of young people for whom I cannot begrudge the Internet, or Facebook, or any of the other myriad forms of electronic communication. In their particular case, I’ve been reminded that “things are certainly not as they might seem.”

The truth is, even the aforementioned portrait of the American family, troubling as it may seem, is something of a fantasy. Hard economic times, broken homes, latchkey kids…one struggles to conceive of an “average” American family in this day and age. The situation becomes infinitely more complex, in even the “healthiest” home, when a not-so-healthy family member is added to the mix.

For the last seven months, I’ve had the privilege of volunteering with The American Association of Caregiving Youth (AACY) in an outreach/media relations capacity. Unfortunately, if you haven’t heard of AACY, you are not alone. Not only is this modest, upstart organization the only one of its kind in the U.S., the children for whom it advocates bear no obvious, outward signs of the challenges they face. They come every race, every ethnicity, and every socio-economic stratum. Yet with regard to the public discourse on healthcare, they remain largely voiceless. How else could more than 1.4 million American kids, ages eight to eighteen, caring for chronically ill, injured, disabled, or aged family members go unnoticed? These are not simply kids helping with chores, or cooking and cleaning, but children administering medications, constantly monitoring a loved ones health, sometimes even acting as breadwinners…at the expense of their educations, their social selves, and often their own health.

AACY’s Boca Raton, FL-based model program, the Caregiving Youth Project (CYP), provides a variety of services in school, out of school and at home to help and support student caregivers in the state’s third most populous county. Working in partnership with the School District of Palm Beach County, the CYP currently serves nearly 400 caregiving youth and their families in 8 area middle schools and 17 high schools: a promising start, but modest in the face of an estimated 10,000 youth caregivers countywide. Services provided by the CYP include those one might commonly associate with a charitable, human services organization: home visits, tutoring, skills building, group activities, respite services, etc. I was on-board with all of these although “not so much” when informed by AACY’s founder and President, Dr. Connie Siskowski, of one of the organization’s crowning achievements: the acquisition of computers, printers, supplies, and yes – the bane of our existence – a year of Internet service for seventy-five of the organization’s most affected students.

No doubt, a donation valued at $100,000 in today’s lean economy is a generous and laudable act. But some part of me couldn’t help but wonder if the donor, AT&T, and the fiscal agent, the Palm Beach County Education Commission, hadn’t somehow got it wrong. Quietly, I wondered, “Wouldn’t that money have been better spent somewhere else?” As Dr. Siskowski explained how the challenge had presently become maintaining Internet service beyond the underwritten year, my mind went somewhere else immediately. I envisioned a group of already socially challenged kids retreating to their rooms, ignoring their daunting responsibilities and spending endless hours on Facebook. As it turns out, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Yes, Dr. Siskowski assured me, caregiving kids in the CYP do engage Facebook, sometimes heavily. And why wouldn’t they? After all, these are kids who, because of their adult-size responsibilities, cannot engage in after-school activities with their peers, can’t play sports or join clubs, often hurrying home immediately after the final bell to care for a family member. Perhaps the single psychosocial consequence most consistently articulated by caregiving kids in the program is the feeling of being utterly alone in their responsibilities. They feel like pariahs, ashamed of their predicament and unaware of its prevalence. Facebooking other caregiving kids helps dispel that erroneous and damaging notion, provides them the means for much needed interaction – indeed, any interaction with their peers – and teaches young caregivers they are part of a community.

Oh yes, and let’s remember that a child hurrying home to monitor grandma’s blood sugar can’t casually drop by the library after school to research a homework assignment. If that child is economically disadvantaged, as are many of the CYP’s kids, the assignment may never be completed. Home computers and Internet service are beyond the economic means of many of AACY’s kids, even in Palm Beach County, an ostensibly affluent community which also happens to have an inordinately high number of elderly, disabled, and immigrant populations. So while many of AACY’s caregiving kids are of modest economic means, their schools do not qualify for Title One entitlements which might otherwise offer improved curriculum, instructional activities, counseling, parental involvement, or increased staff and program improvement.

Were all of this not enough, Dr. Siskowski’s internal research indicates “connected” caregiving kids routinely use the Web to find information about their care-recipients’ medical conditions and search for economically priced medication, food and other household supplies. Adults too, in these caregiving households have used their newly provided connectivity to find community resources or employment. And AACY itself sees its own monthly e-newsletter “Treasure Talk” and its websites, as an integral means of communicating with its dual role youth. The sites provide information on and for youth caregivers, forums for youth, family and professionals, and information about medical conditions and community resources.

Once again, I’ve been reminded, “things are seldom what they seem.” As many of us often do, a preconceived set of notions about a complex cultural phenomenon prevented me from seeing a highly relevant truth about technology and kids today. Far from a curse, at least with regard to the unique case of student caregivers and their families, connectivity must be considered a blessing. Let caregiving kids have their Facebook; let them also have a chance to overcome their loneliness and social isolation, perform in school, better care for their chronically infirm loved ones; and while we’re at it, let’s give adults in the household a chance to get ahead as well. Maybe its time we gave them not only our blessing…but also, our support.

To learn more about the American Association of Caregiving Youth, go to http://www.aacy.org, or contact the organization at 1-800-725-2512.