Hansen: Gen V: Is it virtual living?

It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Laguna Beach, and my boys were holed up in the house, so I started to kick them outside when I stopped myself.

One was laughing loudly with a group of online friends while playing a game. Another was Skyping with schoolmates on a homework project. The third was quietly reading a book.

I wanted them to go outside and play with friends, but they already were — sort of.

It's clear that teens and preteens have embraced online collaboration tools. Some pundits have dubbed the kids "Generation Virtual" or Gen V.

My question is, what does this mean? What are the long-term impacts? Am I creating little cyber boors devoid of social skills?

Anyone who grew up before the Internet was regularly kicked out of the house. We went to the mall or corner store or played in the dirt, and it was good. It fostered creativity, solidified friendships and caused all kinds of neighborhood problems involving toilet paper.

We proudly recall these stories today.

But does this give us the right to badmouth today's online approach?

I turned to psychologist Michele McCormick, Ph.D., a Laguna Beach resident, to understand how these tools may be impacting young adults.

"Parents are wondering what their position should be," McCormick said. "Is it good, is it bad? It can be both. It's how it's used."

McCormick says the primary focus for kids this age revolves around the peer group. This has not changed for decades. What has changed are the dynamics around involvement.

"They're tribal, and they're finding their tribe, and that's not a bad thing," McCormick said. "For introverted kids, this is such an easier way for them to reach out. Their level of anxiety is not as high."

If the playing field is more level with an online group, then self-esteem and confidence should follow.

The challenge is most studies have focused on the negative: Don't do this, limit that, monitor everything. The research has also honed in on excessive use.

"What we're finding is kids' attention spans are getting shorter and shorter, so they do everything in sound bites," McCormick said. "And they're distractibility levels are increasing. So their capacity to sustain focus and concentration is really being compromised."

The concern also has been driven largely by inappropriate sexual behavior, predators and bullying. All of that is important, but in more day-to-day reality, it comes down to a new balanced life that needs to recognize the pervasiveness — and usefulness — of the technology.

And it's not just kids.

"When couples finally get their kids down, and they can actually have face-to-face time with each other, they're running and checking their emails," McCormick said.

There are rural areas of the country that are simply dependent on online tools for communication.

"In Taos, N.M., it's really kind of necessary for them. They share their artwork, they share their community involvement, their business," McCormick said.

"The only place for teenagers to gather there is the Walmart. There is no mall. And so it really helps them connect."

Laguna doesn't have a mall either, but we have a beach. We have downtown. We have Koffee Klatch and Jack in the Box and any other number of hangouts.

And of course there are plenty of nature areas.

"Regardless of the technology, our kids are forgetting how to spontaneously, creatively and freely play outside," McCormick said. "And they are losing their connection to the earth. That's so critical to development and to who we are.

"You see a group of teenagers out and they're not talking to each other; they're kind of talking to each other, but they are also texting their friends, telling them who they're with."

It's incredibly cool that kids can work on school projects with their peers online. Online games are also amazing because my boys can talk to kids from across the world. But I also think that when it's a beautiful Sunday afternoon, you need to be outside.

And when it's no longer important where we are and what we're doing but only how it will look on Facebook, then we have a problem.

Plus, my guess is playing in the dirt will not make a good online picture.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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