Monday, February 10, 2014

Children of the Future

AVG Technologies [1] recently released results of their 2014 study on how computing and networking technologies are shaping our lives.  The takeaway?  That many young children (in the 3-5 age range) can effectively use a tablet or a computer mouse, and perform tasks like play PC games before they can muster the (physical rather than electronic) digital dexterity to tie their shoelaces. [2] This has led to a flurry of articles in the media, many of which are either lauding how digitally native upcoming generations will be, or decrying the fall of civilization that will surely result.

Personally, I think many of the results are indeed reflective of real changes in the ways in which children are learning in their early years, and I do find these changes troubling – though perhaps not quite “fall of civilization” troubling [3] and almost certainly not for the same reasons as many of those crying “Doom! Doom!” [4]

Unlike many who decry youth’s increasing engagement with technology, I’m an unabashed futurist.  Forward is the only direction possible, in my opinion – and the only direction in which solutions will be found for the problems our past technological advances have caused. I don’t believe we can turn back the clock, but I don’t think we can ignore history either – and that’s where my concern comes in.

I don’t actually think there’s anything especially wrong with a toddler being able to operate favourite games or access favourite videos on a parent’s tablet. Educational packages aside [5] the reality is that for those of us living in the developed world these technologies are all around us.  Learning to operate a TV remote or a tablet application or a PC is actually part and parcel of life – these are skills that children will need sooner or later anyway, and being able to experiment with them early on will help them to quickly navigate new devices as they get older. [6]

No, my concern is not with children engaging with technology – it’s the implication of the study that they’re not engaging with the rest of the world.

Let me be clear: I am not referring to studies that suggest that media consumption may be bad for very young children.[7]  What concerns me is the fact that children – particularly very young children like toddlers – have a great deal to learn about the world, and only a finite time in which to learn it.  Time spent learning to operate a television, tablet, or for that matter a typewriter will necessarily use time that might otherwise have been used to learn letters and numbers, to develop the fine motor skills needed for writing, drawing and tying shoelaces, and to have deep, meaningful interactions with older children and adults.

Learning how to master technology is certainly a key skill for the future – in fact, I feel strongly that technology that remains a mystery has the potential to master you: understanding at least the basics of how things work and the principles that apply is an important part of retaining our agency in the modern world. 

But technology is an addition to our lives, not a replacement for them and those other skills are still necessary.

In some cases – learning to draw or to write – technology can be leveraged in fairly obvious ways to enhance the learning process, so to some extent both the traditional skill and the skill of using technology can be learned at the same time. [8] But in other cases – learning to tie shoelaces – there is no substitute to the physical act[9], and for others – interactions with older children and adults – while technology can play a role in extending relationships to those who aren’t actually present, there is accumulating evidence that direct physical interaction is an important dimension of both motor and cognitive development.[10]

And of course all this ignores entirely the known benefits of engaging with the physical environment – play that involves the natural world is yet another thing that play with technology necessarily limits.[11]

Learning about and experimenting with technology is an important part of growing up human in any developed country these days – after all, that’s why we worry so much about low income communities where access to computers and the internet is not universal.

But learning about and experimenting with being human is the most critical thing, and excessive focus on our new toys may lead us to neglect remembering who we are, and the rather primitive scaffold on which we’ve built this civilization.

Somehow, we need to find ways to integrate learning about these new technologies into the learning children have needed to do for centuries - if we don't, we may see the whole thing tumble down.


1 Yes, the online antivirus and security company based in the Czech republic – it seems they have decided to do a series of online surveys every 4 years, presumably mostly as a publicity event but also as a way of understanding the way the threat landscape is changing. While I’m sure the technical dimension of the study is very well designed, it may also be wise to take the results with a bit of salt, considering the source.

2 Among other things, of course. This just happens to be the comparison the media have jumped on. There are a number of articles doing the rounds, but they all say the same things with minimal local editing.  Here’s an example.

3 I say perhaps because actually the reasons I do find it troubling have the potential to, if not topple our civilization, at least hamstring it.

4 I am not ashamed to admit that I am compelled to accompany this cry with this image: 

If you know what this is, and where this picture comes from, I tip my hat to you.

5 Which are mostly useless, I might add. Not that such technologies can’t offer any educational value, but that research has consistently shown that the results are very much hit and miss.

6 Of course, we already know this – how many people have a young relative who effortlessly works through the menus of a new camera or other device that adults need to think carefully about?

7 Despite articles like this one saying that “the jury is in” in fact the jury seems to be emphatically out on this – the apparent developmental delay associated with media exposure was found to be absent in adult-directed media consumption in this study and this one suggests that television viewing combined with parental discussion of what was seen is a positive correlate to toddlers’ theory of mind.

8 I think the caveat “to some extent” is important here – while there are many good drawing apps and alphabet teaching apps available, there are also some truly awful ones and even the best are limited by our current touchscreen technology. As good as it is, it’s still digital, with the limitations that imposes.  The multisensory experience of actually holding a pencil and putting it to paper is wholly analog by comparison, and the engagement of multiple feedback channels is well known to enhance the learning process. This is something that digital methods of learning don’t – yet – offer.

9 Admittedly, in the age of Velcro actual shoelace tying might be of questionable importance…but manipulation of cords and knots is one of humanity’s fundamental technologies, and applies in so many other contexts!

10 A particularly interesting recent study suggests that the rough and tumble play in peer-to-peer and father-child contexts (commonly observed not only in humans but in other mammals) actually plays a part in cognitive and social development. Certainly, it’s difficult to conceive of ways in which online interactions could lead to complex understandings of pain, the physical experiences of others, etc. that seem to form the foundation of our theories of mind.

11 Language fails me here – our technology is obviously part of our natural environment, but it seems evident that engaging with the non-human-mediated dimensions of our natural environment is also important.

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