Daian Martinez: Innocence in the Age of Information
What does it mean to retain innocence in the age of information? This week, 22-year-old Daian Martinez answers this question for us.
Daian is a talented young writer whose recent work as a Raab Writing Fellow at UCSB explored the big and little things that affect today’s youngest generation. After seeing her zine “In the Middle” – an exploration of middle school students’ lives in a technology-driven era – I asked Daian if she would share what she has observed with us in the Dear Montecito column. In Daian’s words:
On a June morning, three days into summer camp, a young boy joined late. He walked in with confidence, a pair of boots, and a cowboy hat. I thought it looked funny, maybe even out of place – it was a hot and humid day after all, but the young girls at camp found it intriguing. One of them quickly became fond of the boy. She found him playing carpet ball later that day and walked around him giggling and whispering with her friend, hoping to catch his attention. I watched on the sidelines laughing to myself, but relating nonetheless. I had behaved similarly when I was in middle school. I would get so jittery around my crush and purposely raise my voice, so much that my laughs would become cackles (even though he wasn’t really all that funny), but it was all in hopes of getting his attention.
I cringe thinking back on it now, except I know it was part of my growth and innocence.
You see Montecito, I saw small glimpses of myself through the lives of the middle school students I mentored during a summer camp. They were full of dreams – not daydreams, but of an ambition and passion that drove them forward. They shared stories about a future where they were architects, artists, doctors, and engineers. One of them even mentioned becoming a YouTuber. But amidst these stories, their eyes darted back and forth, exchanging glances to make sure they were not being laughed at; and that maybe their aspirations were not too far-fetched.
A particular student was an artist in disguise. She fiddled with words elaborately, describing a mundane event as an out-of-body experience – I was dispensed from reality hearing her speak. She was a natural speaker, a writer, and poet all combined. She had shared her dreams of becoming an author with her friends, but they discouraged her, saying, “authors don’t make money, at least not livable money. I read that online.” And that was as far as her words reached.
I wondered if in that moment she felt the pangs of innocence, of her imagination coarsening and shrinking inward – and she, exiled, because she was older now (by way of new knowledge), aware of societal expectations and financial insecurity. I wondered if that simplicity is something she could have kept longer, that is, to not have her dreams spoiled by mundane affairs. But maybe not. As we acknowledge the reality of our society, we understand that information and opinions – however unwarranted – flood our screens incessantly, like moths to a flame. So even if that student didn’t hear those discouraging words from her friends, she would have probably found it online herself. And while it’s impossible for students to disconnect from online spaces, it’s not impossible to help them cultivate their innocence.
Innocence is not ignorance, or naiveté, but rather discernment. Students are constantly exposed to images, information, ideas, videos etc., and many of them can negatively affect their lives. If the artist-in-disguise student had embraced innocence, that meant consciously and deliberately making choices that filter out the overwhelming information she received that could negatively impact her mind – and heart. It meant approaching the complexities of the world and maintaining a steadfast focus on what truly mattered. It meant recognizing that societal expectations and financial insecurities could be a part of her reality, but they didn’t have to define her dreams or sense of self. It meant acknowledging her self-worth.
Another student said she was working hard to become a doctor. Throughout the camp, I saw her sitting alone on her phone during break times. I went up to her and asked if maybe she wanted to play with the other kids. She didn’t. She was watching a YouTube video titled: College Acceptance Reactions 2023.
I was surprised because I hadn’t watched those kinds of videos until my junior year of high school.
During my junior year of high school, I was excited about going to college. I watched other students who had received their college acceptance in hopes of living vicariously through them. It was just for fun, I must have thought. But soon I found myself in a spiral of similar videos – about GPA’s, SAT/ACT scores, extracurriculars, clubs, volunteering opportunities, personal insight questions etc. I began comparing myself to these strangers online. I felt small, like a mustard seed.
Did she feel small as well?
Living vicariously through people online is a scary thing. Okay, well, it’s a really fun and enjoyable experience until your world begins to shrink and your experience of reality becomes skewed – when your primary lens of viewing the world comes from an online perspective. The online world is curated. For example, the videos and posts students see may not accurately represent the full spectrum of college experiences or the diversity of individuals. It was hard for me to understand this as a high school student. How much harder would it be for these middle school students who have fostered an online presence at a much younger age?
Middle school students, who are still developing their sense of self and forming their identities, are particularly susceptible to the influence of social media and online content. They have much more limited life experiences, especially if they’re living their lives behind screens. They become vulnerable to creating unrealistic expectations and comparisons.
So I want to say this again: let’s help our youth embrace innocence. By cultivating innocence, they can protect themselves from living in a distorted reality where self-worth and personal success are measured by superficial standards set through an online landscape. Montecito, we can help these middle school students question what they see, or hear – to understand the limitations of a digital world. Our youth may think they fall short to the idealized versions they encounter online, but really their worth and personal success transcend pixels and likes. Instead, it’s contingent on their personal growth through authentic experiences – through their passions, meaningful connections, and developing their interest or talents.
Innocence is a mental filter. It’s an emotional filter. It’s the lens through which our youth can view the world with curiosity and discernment. I think we should also embrace innocence and lead by example. Let’s empower our youth to feel safe within the confines of such a fast-paced and technologically-defined world.