Do we need to rescue our kids from the digital world?
- 18 June 2014
- From the section Technology
My children live in the digital world as much as they live in the real one.
Whether they are chatting to their friends on Xbox Live or FaceTime or viewing their profiles on Instagram, these days it seems that there is always a virtual guest in our house.
Their expectations of life are fundamentally different to mine at their ages - eight and 10. They were among the first generation to swipe a dumb screen and wonder why nothing happened; the first to say when a toy was broken: "Don't worry, we can just download a new one"; and the first to be aware that the real world runs seamlessly into the digital one.
These digital natives understand the etiquette of the digital world - how to text, how to email, how to get wi-fi and how to watch whatever they want, whenever they want. And homework is a whole lot easier now that they have the virtual font of all knowledge at the their fingertips - Google.
As the author of the book Growing Up Digital, Don Tapscott has spent a lot of time looking at how the generation born in the age of computing will differ from those before.
"Generation M [mobile] are growing up bathed in bits," he says. "Their brains are actually different."
For him, the way the brain is wired is dictated by how you spend your time.
"My generation grew up watching TV - we were passive recipients. Today children come home and turn on their mobile devices, they are listening to MP3s, chatting to their friends, playing video games - managing all these things at the same time."
All the data our children are creating and uploading, coupled with their casual ability to bring their friends into the house via a tablet screen, makes parents question whether they are growing up in a world where privacy just won't mean anything.
"At a time when our lives are recorded and analysed by countless services, organisations and the state, educating young people about the importance of privacy and considering what information they share should be high on the agenda," the deputy director of Big Brother Watch, Emma Carr, says.
"We are seeing the first cases of people being forced to hand over social media passwords before they are offered employment, cyberbullying has become a clear issue, and stories about commercial companies and the government snooping on our communications are now commonplace.
"It is imperative that we teach our children about how our communications are now accessed and the ramifications that that may bring."
Mr Tapscott is not convinced.
"The idea that privacy is dead is deeply unfounded but the way we protect privacy is going through a fundamental change," he says.
"Kids are quite aware of the whole privacy question and intuitively understand idea of using data responsibly."
That resonates with me - I can barely take a picture these days without one of my children asking suspiciously: "Are you going to post it on Facebook?"
Even taking a picture for this article created a stream of questions: "What are you writing about me?" "Why can't you just get a picture of a kid on an iPad from Google?"
As well as making me realise that my kids have little respect for copyright, it also made me see that they are pretty sophisticated consumers.
"Actually they are scrutinisers," said Mr Tapscott. "When I was young if I saw a picture, it was just a photo, these days kids look at pictures and ask whether it has been photoshopped."
As for data privacy, there is evidence that companies are beginning to understand that individuals want to wrest back control of what could be their greatest asset, their data. Companies are now developing apps and dashboards that allow people to store all the information that they share online in one place.
Some think eventually we will even sell our data as a commodity to the advertisers so desperate to throw it back at us in a personalised form. Respect Network is setting up a platform that will allow peole to choose who they share their data with.
Meanwhile, the amount of control individuals have over the information that exists online about them is also being challenged.
Last month the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled in favour of the "right-to-be-forgotten" principle, ordering Google to remove links to sites with information about an individual's financial history that he had deemed out-of-date.
Such rules may be welcomed by our children as they seek to wipe out the profiles they created when they were teenagers or younger to replace with a more sober, grown-up digital CV.
And there could be a lot of data to wipe - according to the Pew Internet Centre, up to half of US children have a mobile phone by the time they are 12 and increasingly parents are creating email accounts and social media profiles for their new-born babies.
Anecdotal evidence suggests many parents these days are more likely to buy their toddler a tablet than a cuddly toy.
Having such an early interaction with technology has led to a glut of studies questioning whether our children spend too much time immersed in the addictive digital world and too little time crossing roads, playing in mud and chasing butterflies.
A lot of it comes down to sensible parenting, thinks Mr Tapscott.
"Parents need to make choices. Say no devices at dinner, in restaurants. Draw up a social contract about when technology can be used," he says.
He is not a fan of the trend towards net filters, where ISPs around the world, including the biggest four in the UK, increasingly offer parents the option to block out pornography.
"The best way to deal with pornography is not to prevent access but talk to our kids about it," he insists.
The really important question for the optimists such as Mr Tapscott is how schools deal with our tech-savvy youngsters.
"For the first time in history, children are an authority on something really important - how the digital world is changing our institutions."
He is not convinced schools have understood the enormity of that change:
"Children don't learn the way we learnt, but the classroom hasn't changed since the industrial revolution."
While there are plenty of schools doing innovative stuff with technology, there is also evidence that many teachers remain scared of its potential.
Just this month, a report from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers called for government guidelines on the amount of time children should spend on net-connected devices.
Director Mark Langhammer said: "We're hearing reports of very young children who are arriving into school quite unable to concentrate or socialise properly because they're spending so much time on digital games or social media."
But far from restricting access, Mr Tapscott thinks we need to stop seeing online as bad and offline as good.
"There is a lot of cynicism about net addiction, losing social skills, being an army of narcissists only interested in Facebook and selfies. I found that none of that is true.
"They are the smartest generation ever."