My uncle said, “How old are you?”

I said, “Nine and a half,” and then

My uncle puffed out his chest and said,

“When I was your age… I was ten.”

- Shel Silverstein, author of children’s books and poet, 1930-1999.

Oh the good old days, when in the youth of our parents and grandparents life was safe, idyllic and pure. When there were no smartphones, and children would play outside, and there was no cyber-bullying. Dads would come home to a hot meal cooked by mom, women were better mothers and there were fewer divorces. When the Prime Minister/President/military dictator was someone to look up to, and there was less violence and conflict on television. Young men worked harder, the young respected the old, and people lived in perfect harmony.

It is all a myth; that the past was any better than the present and in the words of George Orwell, “Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.” The term to describe this phenomenon is Juvenoia (credited to sociologist David Finkelhor), the fear of juveniles by older adults.

There is an exaggerated moral panic about youth today, that they are lazier, self-obsessed, and more vapid than ever before. Older adults have always been quick to blame youth culture for perceived social problems, from selfies to Facebook, from the printing press, to the Internet. It is the fear of change, and a need to hold on to something the older generation understands better (the “good old days”). But this is not a new phenomenon. New technology has always been feared, and the youth are always the first adopters. 

The first commercially successful printing press operation started in 1458 and the conservatives of the day weren’t impressed. A prominent monk named Trithemius of Sponheim said in 1492, “Printed books will never be the equivalent of handwritten codices.” Why? “Because scribes display more diligence and industry than printers.”

In 1871, the Sunday Magazine, published out of Philadelphia, printed something that could well be applied to texting today. “The art of letter-writing is fast dying out… we think we are too busy for such old-fashioned correspondence. We fire off a multitude of rapid and short notes, instead of sitting down to have a good talk over a real sheet of paper.”

Here’s another quote from 1907 from the Journal of Education: “Our modern family gathering, silent around the fire, each individual with his head buried in his favourite magazine, is the somewhat natural outcome of the banishment of colloquy from the school.” Sounds familiar? “Conversation is a lost art”, is not just something your grandfather may have said yesterday at the dinner table; older generations have always been underwhelmed by younger ones. 

The bogeyman of our time is the Internet and social media, but has the Internet really wasted our youth? The concern has been that Internet makes the youth more vulnerable to sexual victimisation or distracts them from school.

However, at least in the US, sex crimes overall, and against children in particular, have dropped dramatically. According to FBI data, forcible rape is down 33% from 1992 to 2009 (about half of forcible rape reports involve juveniles). Trends show fewer teen pregnancies and births for 15-17 year olds (down 43% 1991-2007). The number of teens committing suicide has been dropping (down 38% from 1990-2007). Math and writing proficiency have modestly increased during this period of increasing Internet usage. The percentage of children who said they were engaged in extracurricular activities has increased 10% from 2002-2005. High school drop-out rates have also declined (down 33% from 1995-2008).

The correlation between the rise of the Internet and a more violent or lazier youth does not exist. The claim even be made that this era is one where social problems affecting children and families has declined. While the indicators quoted above are from the US, even here at home, the cell phone helps make sure your child can call you when he/she is in trouble. Adolescents know more about Pakistan’s politics because of funny memes about Asif Ali Zardai, or Khawaja Asif, or because they can access news on their phones, free of cost or physical constraints. Hardworking young men and women can send their families in different towns money almost instantly via Easy Paisa and other financial services. Yes, we watch more YouTube videos about cute dogs and animated oranges, but do we really believe that youth before the Internet was doing wonders with their time because they weren’t browsing the Internet?

What is beyond doubt is that the main risk to the youth is created by the generation preceding it; the generation that created the political and social environment we live in today, whether it manifests as religious fundamentalism, aggressive patriarchy or institutional corruption. Violent films or video games do not cause enough ill to wipe out good parenting and a supportive social structure.  

“Youth culture” by logic of its reliance on new technologies, from the printing press to the smartphone app, is always innovative and progressive. Cases are abundant. The martyred hero Burhan Wani, built a campaign for Kashmiri rights against Indian occupation on Facebook, thousands of entrepreneurs in Pakistan could not survive without low cost marketing on social media, and millions of YouTube videos exist for children to learn things that our teachers could not explain to us.

Teens and young adults remain one group of people that can be publicly disparaged without censure. Sure, some of the anti-youth rhetoric is about “protecting” our youth (cyber-bullying and immoral content are two pertinent issues here), yet there is an undertone of true loathing in how the youth is dealt with. It is the reason why, when a young person speaks up for a right, they can be shut down by their elders – because age demands respect. In all honesty, age should demand nothing – knowledge and hard work should demand respect. The most violent manifestation of this is child abuse, where children often do not have the courage to speak up against an adult, or they are not believed when they do.

Today’s world seems worse because information is easier to broadcast. Conflict is better reported, and thus seems to be higher. Divorce rates are higher not because the youth has lost its morals, but because the youth has become self-aware and self-reliant enough to make hard choices for a better quality of life. More young women are working, but it is statistically proven that working mothers raise smarter and stronger children. All these changes are scary, but holding on to the belief that there was ever a past “Golden era” is naïve and regressive. We have never lived in a peaceful world, but today many human rights exist and are recognised than ever before.

They might be dancing more and singing louder but kids these days are not out of control. They are the same as they were a century ago, trying out new things and trying not to offend their parents too much. The next great inventor, explorer, writer, artist, scientist is among them, as he/she has always been in generations past.