Battle in Print: Adult insecurities drive the myth of the digital child

Norman Lewis

There is little doubt that digital technology constitutes an important dimension of childhood. It is also clear that children and adolescents play a far more important role in the mass diffusion of the new media than was the case with print, radio or television. But whilst these points are generally accepted, there is little serious explanation of this phenomenon. Instead of analysis, we get description.

To understand why digital technologies enter into the lives of young people, it is in fact necessary to examine how childhood itself has changed. Whilst digital technologies certainly offer new opportunities, the motivation of users can only be understood by examining the social circumstances that have given rise to this impulse. Otherwise we end up in a tautological, technologically-determinist discussion which suggests that it is the technology that is the cause of uptake, and that uptake proves how compelling the technology is in the first place. This may be attractive to the ICT industry, which thrives on self-delusion and self-flattery, but it sheds little light on what is really going on and what this might mean for the future.

Too much of the research literature is adult-centred

Most descriptions of young people’s interaction with technology are driven by an adult-centred agenda, which is motivated by an ambivalence and unease towards change. This is illustrated by the vast number of surveys of children’s and young people’s use of new media. The data generated often provides useful insights into general trends. But too many of these surveys are based on little more than responses gained from parents, who often misunderstand how children actual use and experience new media. Research rarely focuses on the qualitative interaction between new technology and childhood. Instead, surveys are mounted in order to ‘discover’ the risks facing children on the internet. Even some of the most sophisticated studies that closely interrogate the childhood experience tend to be distracted by external policy and parental concerns. For this reason the discussion of young people and new media continually confuses what adults think or say with what children actually do. A full appreciation of the relationship between young people and media technologies in fact requires an understanding of the lived experience of childhood as a whole.

Children confined indoors face online risks

In recent decades the expansion of adult fears relating to the well-being of children and young adults has transformed childhood. Increasingly, childhood is perceived as an exceedingly dangerous experience. Virtually every dimension of children’s lives - their health, outdoor activity, indoor pursuits, online activity, family life, peer relations, encounters with adults - is represented as dangerous. Children are frequently defined as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘at risk’. These adult anxieties towards children’s safety have led to a fundamental reorganisation of childhood.

One of the most significant outcomes of this preoccupation with risk has been a major shift from an outdoor culture of play to a bedroom culture of media activity. 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 a symptom of risk consciousness. Ironically, this does not mean that these anxieties have been quelled. Rather, the use of these technologies within the domestic sphere has given rise to a new set of fears. These include the dangers of access to ‘inappropriate’, potentially damaging content, the potential for unsupervised contact with unknown acquaintances and the leaking of personal information from the home.

Apprehensions about the impact of the media are by no means a new development. Throughout modern history, the introduction of new communications technologies has tended to provoke a sense of foreboding. Many of the fears associated with the old media - violence, stupefaction and vulgarization - have been transposed to the new. However, the sheer variety of additional risks associated with the new media - bullying, harassment by paedophiles, pornography, cyber violence, addiction, loneliness, identity theft, stalking - goes way beyond the relatively narrow range of problems linked to the old media.

Parental responses to cyberspace are both differentiated and at times ambiguous. For some, the disembodied nature of the internet means that their children are not as at risk from violence or abuse as they would be if they were communicating in an outdoor space - the PC provides a barrier to harm. However, prevailing attitudes towards risk mean that the promotion of new media on the grounds of its safety and educational benefits continually competes with beliefs that these technologies pose a serious risk for children. So while parents may encourage PC and internet usage, parents are also constantly worried about what their kids get up to when they are online.

Children adopt social networking tools to evade the adult gaze

The repositioning of childhood indoors has not led to the consolidation of intergenerational ties. On the contrary, the rise of a new indoor bedroom culture reflects the individualisation of family life. Equally, parents and children clearly have different new media agendas: 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, whilst children adopt it to gain a measure of freedom from adult supervision. Most importantly, children regard the new media as vehicles for marking themselves off from their elders and for attempting to forge links with their peers in spaces free from adult supervision. For this reason, media technology is something to be customised, personalised and consumed privately out of the sight of adults.

In the clash of new media cultures, the young have two principle objectives. First, children’s interest in the new media is shaped by their desire to minimise the effects of their isolation. Communications technologies like mobile phones and instant messaging are attractive precisely because they help children to overcome their bedroom culture experience of isolation. This results in the emergence of a distinct peer culture that seeks through technology to gain independence from adult supervision. This explains the steady demand for tools and applications that help children manage their lives to this end. Children seek digital applications that are distinct from those used by adults, that are potentially under their control, and that help them to pass time, provide entertainment and connect with their peers unobserved.

Second, children’s interest in the new media is shaped by their desire to create autonomous spaces for themselves within which they can explore and experiment with their identities. A number of studies suggest that new technologies (the internet, mobile phones and video games) enable children to develop spaces for themselves, beyond the purview of adults and yet still within the domestic sphere. The popularity of instant messaging among teens, for example, is a result of their need to socialise while being confined to their homes. The sudden, albeit unpublicised, embrace of blogging by young people testifies to the existence of a powerful demand for applications that provide a medium for self-expression.

For these reasons, technologies that enable self-expression and communication are most likely to meet the demands of youth culture. Hence the rapid growth of social networking sites like MySpace or Facebook that combine these precise capabilities. Affirmation, recognition, acknowledgement and acceptance may also be objectives, but young people particularly value and celebrate self-expression as an important mode of being in its own right. This desire gives rise to a highly individualised and personalised online culture, in which applications and tools are in demand because they are indispensable for the construction of individual stories. Customisation, demarcation and self-expression are the requirements of a generation that regards self-expression as itself a form of communication.

The myth of the sophisticated digital child is an adult construction

The young have always appropriated available technologies and cultural artefacts to both express themselves and to relate to one another. In the past, comic books, the car and music played this role. Yet young people’s adoption of technology is surrounded by numerous myths, including the notion that children are naturally disposed to adopt technology.

The myth of the digital child in fact tells us more about adults’ confusion over their role than children’s relationships with new media technologies. 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. And 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.

This erosion of adult confidence has acquired a particularly intense manifestation in relation to the new media. Unlike the younger generations that have grown up with different forms of the new media, many adults have a limited, episodic and functional relationship to it. Alan Kay’s remark that anything invented after you are born is technology is apposite here. Young people, by contrast, experience the media as an integral part of youth culture. Many aspects of digital technology - gaming, texting, instant messaging, chatting - are seen as an everyday part of young people’s world. For adults this is alien territory, which is why they find it difficult to exercise authority.

Yet the idea that there is almost an unbridgeable gap between what parents and children know in fact finds little substantiation in empirical research. The presentation of children as media savvy and ahead of their parents is merely another form of the idealisation of childhood in Western society. Many studies indicate that children do not possess natural talents and abilities in the digital sphere, even if this is the belief of under-confident adults. 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-literate whiz kids. This perception is continually reinforced through advertising that seeks to cultivate the idea that children are unusually skilled in the use of new communication technologies.

By celebrating the digital child we evade adult responsibilities

The tendency to celebrate the natural aptitude of children in fact distracts us from understanding why their technical ability can sometimes exceed those of adults. It is not natural ability, but social isolation and a lack of autonomous space that prompts engagement and experimentation with new media. And since new technologies have become one of the key markers of status in peer-to-peer relations, children have a strong adoption incentive.

The relationship between young people and technology is far more complex than popular characterisations would lead us to believe. In appropriating new technologies, especially social networking tools, young people are attempting to negotiate their relationships with adults and deal with their confinement. Understanding this intergenerational dynamic remains the key to grasping both the creative potential, and the dangerous limits, of contemporary digital culture.

Instead of flattering children we should instead seek to engage them in a quest to maximise the potential of this technology by understanding the hard science and mathematics behind the magic of the digital world. By flattering them we let them, ourselves and the future of innovation off the hook.

Dr Norman Lewis is Chief Strategy Officer, Wireless Grids Corporation, USA. Prior to joining WGC he was Director of Technology Research for Orange UK, formerly the Home Division of France Telecom, where he focused on the integrated Telco approach to the emerging Web2.0 ecosphere. Until recently, he was an executive board member of the MIT Communications Futures Programme. He has acted as a consultant to the World Intellectual Property Organisation on issues related to the digital divide. He is currently the chairman of the International Telecommunications Union’s TELECOM Forum Programme Committee. His current focus remains on the subject of digital children and their encounter with innovation in a risk-averse culture. Allied to this, he is researching new disruptive business models around next generation voice and messaging services.

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