The myth of digital whizkids

Yesterday  The Times2 supplement ran a feature written by Kate Muir titled ‘The Digital Divide: the perils of failing to keep pace with your child’. The article focused on a new campaign called the ‘21st Century School Project’ – a campaign to help parents, teachers and pupils ‘tackle the dark side of the internet’, to teach children how to use ‘offline wisdom, online’, launched by Professor Tanya Byron (the author of the government-backed 2008 Byron Review Safer Children in a Digital World, which resulted in the creation of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety).

At one level the idea of protecting young children in the online space seems obvious. But the problem with the campaign is the assumptions it is based upon. Kate Muir puts this succinctly when she states that the problem is ‘millions of tech-savvy kids, brilliantly equipped for the future, but lost in the maze of the Internet without a moral map’. The absence of a moral map stems from the observation, Byron adds, which is that ‘in the online world, parents are the immigrants and children are the natives’. According to Byron this mismatch in roles means parents are not able to fulfill their role as parents: ‘…your parents taught you how to cross the road and not to talk to strangers when you first went out in (sic) your own, didn’t they?’ she is quoted as telling an assembly of school kids. In other words, this generation of technology whiz kids are not being taught how to traverse the Internet highway by their technologically challenged parents. Hence the need for another internet-safety moral campaign run by ‘experts’ on behalf of Britain’s inadequate parents. Clear? Yes, but fundamentally flawed.

The contempt for adults is breathtaking but not surprising, for the campaign is based upon the rarely explored myth that young people are naturally good with technology, while adults are ‘past it’ and incapable of keeping pace with their children.

This assumption needs to be challenged for a number of reasons:

  • First, because it mistakenly assumes that young people effortlessly adopt digital technology into their lives because they are into the technology;
  • Secondly, because the myth of digitally savvy children is actually an expression of adult confusion about how to conduct their relations with children, which has little to do with children’s relationship to the new media;
  • Third, because it flatters children instead of critically engaging them in a quest to engage more fully with the technology itself; to understand the science and mathematics behind the magic of the digital world; and,
  • Fourth, because by reducing adults to the level of children in need of expert guidance, it undermines adult authority thus making it even more difficult for young people to take the question of their security and privacy online seriously.

Contemporary childhood and digital technology

If you want to understand how and why children adopt digital technologies into their lives, then understand how their experience of childhood has changed. In recent decades, childhood has been fundamentally reorganised around risk. Childhood has become perceived as an exceedingly dangerous experience – their health, outdoor activity, indoor activity, online activity, family life, peer relations, encounters with adults – are now represented as risky. Children are now frequently defined as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘at risk’.

The creation of the ‘indoor child’ whose leisure activities, increasingly dominated by new media, have been transferred to the ‘safety’ of the domestic sphere is one symptom of this risk consciousness. When children are allowed to venture outdoors, to play with friends or play sports, adults now supervise these activities.

This decline of ‘street culture’ and the rise of ‘bedroom culture’ have a number of fundamental consequences:

  • First, children’s lives have increasingly become dominated by the presence of adults;
  • Second, digital technology is used by children to overcome their experience of isolation;
  • Third, peer communications result in a distinct peer culture that is digitally mediated and which seeks to gain a measure of independence through evading adult monitoring.

Thus, the changing character of childhood – particularly the shift from outdoor to indoor – has created a steady demand for tools and applications that help children manage their lives. This is the impetus behind their adoption and rapid internalization of the technology. It is driven by their social needs, by their relationship to popular culture and their peers, not a love of technology. It also results in a number of important dynamics and conflicts with parents that shape this experience on both sides.

Inter-generational dynamic

While parents regard new technology as an educational tool, children regard it as a medium of entertainment and connectivity; parents approach to the new media is underwritten by the imperative of risk minimisation while children adopt and use it in part to gain a measure of freedom from adult supervision. Customisation, demarcation and self-expression are the requirements of a generation that regards self-expression as itself a form of communication. Above all else, they passionately seek to protect their interaction space from the monitoring of adults.

From this perspective, media technology is not something to be shared but is something to be customized, personalized and consumed privately out of the sight of adults. Indeed, this intergenerational dynamic is one of the key drivers of technology adoption by young people, which the ‘21st Century Project’ seems oblivious too.

Enter the ‘digital whiz kid’

Many adults find it difficult to comprehend children’s digital activities. As a result, adults often wrongly attribute this to the ‘natural’ ability to manipulate new technology. Adult insecurities regarding the emerging peer culture are refracted through anxieties about their own technological incompetence. The belief that children are naturally creative users of digital technology is a myth fueled by adult insecurities and expresses more about how adults have become confused about how to conduct their relations with children than anything to do with children and their relationship to the new media technologies.

For some time now, parents, teachers, and other adults involved with children have gone out of their way to cross the generational divide and become young people’s friends rather than their mentors. Uncertainties about adulthood are invariably linked to changing ideas about childhood. In a world where maturity is disparaged as being ‘past it’, and the older generation is seen as having no special claim to wisdom, parents can feel awkward about exercising authority. These cultural trends have a profound influence in the ways that parents make sense of their children’s relationship with the new media. When it comes to new media technology, an intense sense of parental incompetence co-exists with the belief that children are naturally highly skilled computer-savvy whiz kids.

However, there are a variety of good reasons why the erosion adult confidence has acquired a particularly intense manifestation in relation to the new media:

  • Unlike the younger generations that have grown up with these technologies, many adults have a limited and episodic relationship to them. Alan Kay’s rejoinder that anything invented after you are born is technology is apposite here;
  • Young people value and acquire computer expertise in order to achieve practical objectives. Children experience the media as an integral part of youth culture;
  • Adults tend to have a more distant and functional relationship to it;
  • Many aspects of the new media – gaming, texting, instant messaging, chatting, social networks etc. – are seen as part of young people’s world. This is an alien territory where adults find it even more difficult than in other areas of their lives to exercise their authority.

The presentation of children as media savvy and naturally gifted and ahead of their parents is merely another form that the idealisation of childhood assumes in Western society. Many studies indicate that children do not possess natural talents and abilities, which are somehow lost as they make the transition to adulthood. The tendency to celebrate the natural aptitude of children distracts from understanding why their technical ability can sometime exceed those of adults. It is not natural ability but social isolation and a lack of autonomous space that prompts participation in the wider youth consumer culture and encourages engagement and experimentation with different forms of new media. Since it is one of the key markers of status in peer-to-peer relations, children have a strong incentive to familiarise themselves with the new media.

It is the imperative of youth consumer culture rather than a natural disposition to interact with new technology that explains why children often appear to be so ahead of adults.

It is the assimilation of this culture by the younger generations that gives them the technological edge over their elders. In so far as children’s technical competence exceeds their elder’s it reflects their proximity to and involvement in contemporary youth consumer culture. Nothing more nor less.

More harm than good

Thus, the relationship between young people and technology is far more complex than the simple couplet of ‘Digital Natives’ and ‘Digital Immigrants’ suggests. There is nothing natural or preordained about this relationship. It is a complex relationship, which stems from contemporary society and the lived experience of young people. A campaign like the ‘21st Century Project’ will do more harm than good.

In the first place, young people will resist adult incursions into their digital spaces. Part of their acquisition of skills has been the incidental outcome of their attempt to get round all kinds of barriers adults place before them in the online space. This will not change and will remain the cat and mouse tension of the adult/child intergenerational dynamic.

More importantly, it will only have the effect of further undermining adult confidence and their ability to deal with young people and the digital media. A campaign like the ‘21st Century Project’ undermines adult authority and infantilises adults. This will have an even more detrimental long-term impact on young people than anything they might stumble upon online today.

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2 thoughts on “The myth of digital whizkids

  1. Great article. Couple of points – on the subject of evading parental supervision, there is growing evidence of teenagers turning away from Facebook etc. because of the issue of being overlooked by their parents. Secondly the myth of the “younger generation” is amusing – especially as we approach the 20th aniversary of the world wide web. Someone should tell these people that it aint new, even if they have only just discovered it for themselves.

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