Rory McDowall Clark shines a light on our fears of and for digital immigrants. 

We live in a period of huge anxiety about children and childhood. Of all the fears about modern children, one of the greatest centres on technology, commonly supposed to endanger children’s learning, their physical well-being and their ability to make relationships – although in reality there is little empirical evidence to support any of these concerns.  Douglas Adams,
(The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), remarked that ‘technology’ is the name we give things that don’t yet work properly. (He had a point – we no longer consider spoons or ballpoint pens as technology although that is what they are.) But here I am considering digital technologies, that being how the term is commonly understood today. Naturally technology impacts on children’s lives, as on society as a whole, but there is no reason for us to automatically assume this impact must be a negative one.

Natural Versus Unnatural Play
Since the 1950s, when televisions began to appear in family living rooms, adults have worried about its potential to replace children’s ‘natural’ play – or else that it might stunt their imagination and creativity. In fact the opposite is more often the case: children’s horizons have broadened as a result of the wider world available to them; they act out storylines and scenarios in play with others, absorbing, adapting and extending ideas. Many an author, playwright or film director concedes that they learned the art of narrative and the desire to tell stories from watching TV as children. 

Television has many constructive outcomes. The academic Dr Nick Lee suggested a positive result of television’s invasion of the home is that it acts as an ‘extension’ in bringing children into the public world. In this way, he argues, it has been instrumental in growing recognition of children as valuable beings in their own right and increasing respect for children’s rights. Now a huge growth of digital technologies is extending this process as new modes of operating continue to democratise society. For contemporary children, TV is likely to have moved from a communally viewed TV set to individual, hand–held devices, so anxiety has shifted to concerns about ‘screen time’. Against a background of calls to limit and regulate children’s screen time, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health have just published a systematic review of research in this area; they conclude there is little evidence to support a threshold for hours of screen time. Any negative effects are those associated with sedentary lifestyles – a risk arguably more applicable to adults. Indeed Professor Viner, who led the review, points out that reading, seen as hugely positive, is also largely sedentary.

Resistance to the New isn’t New
The introduction of any new cultural form always raises alarm and similar panics have been common throughout history in connection with cinema, comics – even theatre. The Edinburgh Review of 1851 claimed  “One powerful agent for the depravation of the boyish classes of our towns and cities is to be found in the cheap shows and theatres, so specially chosen and arranged for the attraction of the young … it is not to be wondered at that the boy led to haunt them becomes rapidly corrupted and demoralised.”To future generations current anxieties about digital media may appear as absurd as the notion of theatre being a harmful and “depraving” influence to contemporary eyes.

Captain John Backwatered – retreating from the outside world

Natives and Immigrants
Because of the rapid rate of change in new digital technologies however, adults feel especially anxious about their inability to control the environments of their children. Such fears are made worse by the common perception that children are more skilled and competent in their use of technology than adults; this holds an additional threat of reversing customary power relationships as children become the ‘expert’ teachers of their elders. Mark Prensky has described children as digital natives, meaning they were born into and have grown up in an era of technology which they take for granted. In contrast, anyone born before the development of modern technology can be seen as a digital immigrant – living in a ‘foreign’ environment where the language and culture must  be deliberately learned rather than simply assimilated. As digital natives, children competently negotiate a wide variety of textual practices, moving easily between printed, visual and electronic texts. To adults, more accustomed to linear and distinct ways of operating, this appears as ‘flitting’ or lack of concentration – how can children possibly do homework  effectively at the same time as listening to music on headphones and whilst the TV plays in the corner? Assumptions about the ‘best’ way to learn also raise concerns about different ways of knowing, a perceived lack of depth masked by greater superficial breadth. The Ancient Greeks had similar mistrust of writing as a new technology and Socrates argued that it provided students with the appearance of wisdom rather than its reality – different times but the same concerns.

Retreating from the Outside World
Modern technologies are becoming important in children’s lives, not only because of increasing dominance of technology in the modern world but also because parents increasingly invest in entertainment media to keep children safely at home in response to perceived dangers in the outside world. As new media technologies become more prevalent there is corresponding anxiety from adults who did not have such resources when they were young. So computer games are frequently seen as a corrupting influence on children’s behaviour and alongside television and DVDs are an easy target to blame for the supposed demise of childhood.

At the same time, some commentators veer towards utopian views of technology, such as Donald Tapscott who suggests the internet enables new generations to be more creative, democratic and self-aware. Cyndi Katz suggests ‘Children can for the first time reach past suffocating boundaries of social convention, past their elders’ rigid notions of what is good for them.’

Shine a Little Light
Amongst all the arguments and competing views, it is important to remember that both extremes – the media-wise child with a greater grasp of technology than grown-ups, or vulnerable innocents to be protected from its dangers – are based on adult ideas of the child. We need to keep a sense of proportion and take a more nuanced view. Technology is simply a tool available to adult and child alike – its consequences are completely dependent on social contexts in which it operates. Perhaps the fears that surround technology mask other, deeper, fears about the nature of childhood itself within contemporary society?


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