Communication Across Generations


A few days ago I led a workshop on digital and mobile media use with a group of people who were grandparents and parents of older children.  One thing that generated a great deal of discussion involved texting. According to these older family members, the way young people communicate via text is shaping the ways that the older people in their lives are able – or, in less positive terms, forced – to communicate with them. And the older generation has mixed feelings about this.  I heard stories like those of the grandfather who said, “I try to call my grandson but his voice message system is full so I can’t even leave a message.” 

Older people see this lack of availability as an affront or a lack of civility.  They know that the younger generation is constantly connected and thus they sense that they are a lower priority than those who are in their grandchildren’s (or their children’s) immediate peer circles.  They assume that phone calls from peers are answered, and phone calls from older family members are ignored.  But that’s an assumption rooted in a different life experience.


Most people over the age of 35 grew up in a different era when it came to the phone. Throughout most of the twentieth century, when the phone rang, you answered it.  In the late 1970s, for instance, my generation debated whether or not having an answering machine was appropriate, and considered it impolite to “screen calls.” Screening calls, as I’ll explain for those younger than 20, meant standing still when the answering machine was recording the voice of the caller, listening to that voice before deciding whether or not to answer the call. Those older than 30 probably remember returning home to an answering machine full of admonitions to “Pick up! PICK UP THE PHONE.  I KNOW you’re home.”


Caller ID wasn’t widely used until the 1990s. Today you know who is calling because their name or number shows up on your phone, but it used to be common for people to answer the phone by saying their name: “Hi, this is Lynn Clark.” Now when my pre-1990s office phone with no caller ID rings, answering it feels a like playing Russian Roulette.  Will this be a 30-second interaction or a 10-minute one? 

Today, in both business and in our personal lives, we’ve come to expect that we’ll indicate our interest in engaging in a longer conversation with a person, and we will give them the courtesy to have some input on when that will happen.  In other words, we make appointments now, whether it’s to go on Skype or to have a longer conversation. 

Answering the phone is a commitment.  We only recognize that now because we have other alternatives.

Younger people see this need for appointment-making as a way of prioritizing time and relationships within what they experience as crowded and overly busy lives.  They have been texting for as long as they can remember, and so they recognize that they have choices: they can communicate with people on an ongoing basis through texting, keeping the communication going, and they can also communicate with more depth when needed or desired, through scheduled calls. 

To an older generation, it seems as if younger people have more agency in their relationships with the older people in their lives than my generation did, in that they can control whether a certain interaction will be shorter or longer by selecting the communication venue (or in effect, limiting the first contact to a short interaction which is usually a text).  We perhaps forget that when we were younger, we also scheduled a time to have longer conversations with our parents.  Usually, that schedule was set in advance: when we were in college, the military, or in young adulthood, we were to call on Saturday morning, or on Sunday afternoon.  We didn’t usually have shorter conversations with them because it was expensive to call. So whereas we see the short interactions via text as undesirable now, we might have liked it back then, had it been available to us.  

We need to recognize that when we call expecting an answer, it’s not that we are being ignored because they don’t want to talk with us.  It’s that we are breaking the rules of the game: short interactions come first.  Unless you are calling about something that’s going to be happening in the next hour or so, text first.  To them, that’s a sign of civility and respect. 

Social norms are still evolving in relation to these new media.  The challenge for all of us is to recognize that our expectations are just that: expectations.  If we can keep in mind why we are trying to connect with the people in our lives, we can learn the ways that this is understood by everyone involved.

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NYTimes article on parental monitoring cites me, friends

‘Big Brother’? No, It’s Parents
Published: June 25, 2012 253 Comments

When her children were ready to have laptops of their own, Jill Ross bought software that would keep an eye on where they went online. One day it offered her a real surprise. She discovered that her 16-year-old daughter had set up her own video channel.

Using the camera on her laptop, sometimes in her bedroom, she and a friend were recording mundane teenage banter and broadcasting it on YouTube for the whole world to see.

For Ms. Ross, who lives outside Denver, it was a window into her daughter’s mind and an emblem of the strange new hurdles of modern-day parenting. She did not mention it to her daughter; she just subscribed to the channel’s updates. The daughter said nothing either; she just let Mom keep watching.

“It’s a matter of knowing your kids,” Ms. Ross said of her discovery.

Parents can now use an array of tools to keep up with the digital lives of their children, raising new quandaries. Is surveillance the best way to protect children? Or should parents trust them to share if they are scared or bewildered by something online? Read More

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Parental mediation theory article out!

“Parental Mediation Theory for the Digital Age,” by Lynn Schofield Clark, Nov 2011.

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Congratulations, Institute for Digital Humanities Fellows!

Michaela Ardizzioni & Nabil Echchaibi
Assistant Professors, Languages (Italian) & Journalism
University of Colorado at Boulder
Project: “Mediatization of Media Activism: New Tools, Ubiquitous Networks, Emergent Voices”

Leonardo Flores
Associate Professor of English and Associate Dean of Educational Technologies
University of Puerto Rico
Project: “Digitizing Puerto Rican Collections”

Charles Foy
Assistant Professor of Early American and Atlantic History
Eastern Illinois University
Project: “Uncovering Hidden Lives: Eighteenth Century Black Mariners”

Katherine Henne, Nina Billone Prieur, & Rita Shah
Departments of Criminology, Law, & Society, & Theater
UC-Irvine & Duke University
Project: “Reimagining the Bodies and Boundaries of the Crimino-Legal Complex”

Kirstyn Leuner
Ph.D. Candidate, English
University of Colorado at Boulder
Project: “Romantic Codes & Encoding Romantic Literature: The Radcliffe Encoding Project”

Vicki Mayer, Elizabeth Dunnebacke, & Mike Griffith
Associate Professor, Communication
Tulane University & NOLA Video Access Center & Innovative Learning Center
Project: “MediaNOLA: A Portal for Cultural Production”

Susan Meyer
Lecturer, Art & Art History
University of Denver

Angel David Nieves & Marla Jacksh
Associate Professor, Africana Studies
Hamilton College
Project: “Virtual Freedom Trail Project: Corridors to the Past & Present”

Sarah Pessin
Associate Professor & Director, Center for Judaic Studies
University of Denver
Project: “Holocaust Memorial Social Action Site”

Sheila Schroeder
Associate Professor, Media, Film, & Journalism Studies
University of Denver

Siobhan Senier
Associate Professor, English
University of New Hampshire
Project: “Literature of Indigenous New England”

Ted Striphas & Mark Hayward
Professor & Associate Professor of Communication
Indiana University & American University of Paris
Project: “Mapping media flows & Media Reflexivity”

Don Walicek
Assistant Professor, English
University of Puerto Rico
Project: “Tongues Untied: Anguilla Talk in Context”

Jon Winet & collaborators
Associate Professor and Director, Writing University Experimental Wing
University of Iowa
Project: “City of Literature Mobile App Development Team”

The University of Denver received more than 50 applications from around the world for its Institute for the Digital Humanities program. We received many excellent proposals and the decisions were quite difficult. Thanks to the many who applied and best wishes for your continued productive work in the future.

The 2011-2012 Institute for the Digital Humanities will hold its first gathering at the University of Denver in June, 2011.

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Deadline for Digital Humanities Fellows: 12/15/10

Info on the University of Denver’s Institute for Digital Humanities program:

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Interview w/Parker Palmer on youth, civic engagement, religious formation

Video of interview with Parker Palmer, November 8, 2010:

REA 2010 Parker Palmer Plenary from REA-APPRRE on Vimeo.

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Parenting in a Digital Age

Manuscript is currently in review!

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