The Death of Oregon Trail: Thoughts on Technology Today

Lately I’ve been finding myself using that cliche phrase “well, back in my day” a lot more than usual and most likely it’s in reference to something having to do with technology. And I’m just going to come out and say it: I feel bad for kids today. Really and truly.

I think back to growing up in the small New Jersey town my family and I called home. When we got our first computer – an Apple desktop that was the size of a mini-fridge – it was the coolest thing ever. I was entranced by those big floppy disks and would make banners in Print Shop all day long. Valentine’s Day? Don’t worry, I had a banner for it. Happy birthday? Got it! Just need a pick me up? I’m your girl. Our extra-loud printer could print out a card in a “quick” two minutes flat; I just had to remember to tear off the perforated edges and fold it into half twice. Print Shop ruled. And no day was better than Oregon Trail Day. It was talk of the classroom as we counted down the minutes until 1pm, when we would rush down to the computer lab and be allowed to play for forty glorious minutes.  Crossing the river, stockpiling food and water, keeping my wagon’s health up – all very important to my 8-year old self. Simple pleasures.

A few years later, we got AOL at home and the sweet, sweet sound of that modem, the “you’ve got mail!” and the little pings from my buddies online – those were some of my favorite things.  I remember chatting with a friend who had recently moved two towns away. It felt like I was crossing continents in this crazy world wide web of ours and the ten minutes we’d chat every few weeks was beyond fun. But still – we had no cell phones. No Facebook. I used the internet every so often and that was enough. It just wasn’t a part of daily life. There was no urge to capture everything and anything with a camera phone so it could be immediately uploaded to a social network of choice. We were free of text messaging and profile pics. Free of wall posts and notifications. We were free to be kids.

Teaching high school for six years was eye opening. I learned a lot about what kids today are into and it was incredibly interesting to see the transgression from 2004-2011 as social media took a strong hold in their lives. Beyond just cell phones, I saw a marked difference in the role things like MySpace, and eventually Facebook, played in their world.

And with that said, it made me realize just how fortunate I feel to have grown up in a time when we didn’t have those things. Sure, I had my awesome sky blue pager and occasionally my Dad’s Motorola car phone (leather case with a handle, of course)… but that pressure to have both an online life as well as an offline life just wasn’t there.

I worry about these kids. I worry that their social skills will eventually dwindle down to nothing. I feel bad that many of them won’t ever experience that rush of waiting for a call on the house phone, then stretching the cord as far as they can just to get a little privacy.  I can’t imagine growing up without the thrill of coming home and asking my Mom if I had any messages – if “he” had called, if my girl friends had left details for their party on Friday.

Friends who had their own lines were the coolest of cool, and busy signals were the most annoying thing, ever. My late night talk buddies and I even had a system where one of us would page the other and the other person would call up a business number and wait for the call waiting beep, so the ring wouldn’t wake up sleeping parents at 1am. Yearbooks were a big deal – when you wrote your home number in someone’s book, you’d anticipate the entire summer that the cute boy from 5th period might call. There was no instant gratification, no text messaging, no social media. It was old-fashioned, a “let’s have an awkward conversation on the phone and get to know you better” kinda thing. It was three-way calling with your best friends, and making silly answering machine greetings with your family. It was writing numbers on hands in pens, rather than punching it into your address book.

We didn’t change our profile page to reflect our ever-changing teen identities, we didn’t snap photos with our digital cameras and phones constantly. The internet held no importance in our lives. When we had to research something for school, we’d use real books or maybe Encarta. When we had a crush, we’d have a friend call the boy on his house phone, telling him how we felt, while listening in on the extension. We weren’t up to the minute with Facebook updates, we didn’t tweet and we wrote real letters that we passed between classes.

But now, kids text. They chat online. They add each other on Facebook, then ignore each other in the halls. My question is, how is social media, constant texting and being too plugged in really affecting them?

Sure, everything always seems better “back in the day,” and I’m sure some kids do in fact still use a house phone, abhor Facebook, and enjoy a good old fashioned, face-to-face conversation. But what about the rest? To me it seems like a little Oregon Trail and AOL didn’t take over our lives. They were exciting and new, but they were a small part of a much larger picture.

Nowadays the internet and all things social media do play a huge role in my daily life. But my start, the foundation of my interpersonal skills, those were built free of technological crutches, much like most of you I’m sure. I was able to figure out who I was without trying to find an online identity too. And so I ask, what’s your take on it? Do you feel like kids these days are missing out on “real life” with the over-abundance of social media and lack of face-to-face communication?  Conversely, maybe you feel like this is a great shift in a positive direction! I want to hear from you, too.

As always, thank you for reading! And thank you so much for all of the amazing comments in response my piece on being a Mom with tattoos. It was fascinating to read about all of your experiences.

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