Childhood in the digital age
Childhood in the digital age

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Childhood in the digital age

1.1.2 A moral panic?

The following audio recording explores some of the implications of pervasive digital technology. Mariella Frostrup is joined by a panel of experts and commentators including Professor Tanya Byron, Professor Lydia Plowman, Julie Johnson and Helen King, to discuss raising ‘digital kids’. They ask several important questions, such as:

  • Should children under the age of two avoid any contact with technology?
  • Should pre-school-age children engage with age-appropriate social networking sites as a form of ‘training’?
  • Are there any benefits associated with young children’s early exposure to technology?
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MARIELLA FROSTRUP
Welcome to the new series of ‘Bringing up Britain’. The internet may have brought the world a mouse click away but it’s also created a rift between generations with those who were schooled with jotter and pen struggling to keep up with this new communication tool with which children are frequently more adept. According to one study 37 per cent of nine to sixteen year olds say they know more about the internet than their parents. So how can we pass on experience and teach kids how to cope with the world we’re often struggling to get to grips with ourselves?
In today’s programme we’re looking at how the internet has changed the lives of parents and children and what we can do about the challenges, risks, and less often celebrated possibilities it throws up given we’re not all about to log off any time soon.
This week’s panel includes Professor Tanya Byron, consultant, clinical psychologist in child and adolescent mental health, Helen King from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, and Julie Johnson a child, adolescent and family psychotherapist.
Maybe I could just start by asking you all what you describe as the most radical impact the internet has had on children in the past ten years?
HELEN KING
The access to social networking is the ability to communicate outside of the real world and meet new people in a way that they never have been able to before.
MARIELLA FROSTRUP
Julie?
JULIE JOHNSON
I think also just connecting with their friends and maintaining their relationships outside of school has been a very positive thing but obviously has its downsides as well.
MARIELLA FROSTRUP
Tanya?
TANYA BYRON
For me it’s the democratisation of information Anyone can know anyone from anywhere. It doesn’t matter how wealthy you are or how many books your parents can afford to buy you. You can click a mouse and you can go to the Smithsonian and you can see anything that you need to see – to learn.
MARIELLA FROSTRUP
Now most of the discussion about digital kids tends to focus on the years of about eight upwards but especially since the arrival of the tablet computers have become more and more a part of very young children’s lives.
Let’s hear from Professor Lydia Plowman from Edinburgh University who joins me on the line now. She’s one of the very few people who’s conducted research into this age group. Now, Lydia you see them of working tablets and so on like pass masters. I mean do they just pick up how to use things like that?
LYDIA PLOWMAN
Quite a few of the parents will tell us that that is the case, but in fact, because we do visits to home and we’re observing what’s going on rather than just asking questions down the phone line or something, we are able to see that children are modelling their behaviour on what their parents or often their older siblings are doing, so older siblings are quite an important source of learning for these children.
MARIELLA FROSTRUP
How about in terms of technology providing educational tools for children that young? I mean the packaging on pretty much any toy these days is likely to boast of its educational benefits but how often is this really true?
LYDIA PLOWMAN
Well we’re a little bit skeptical about some of those claims. I mean it’s true that all the children in our studies had at least one of these kind of interactive learning aids and the most recent Ofcom survey show that 36 per cent of children have one of these at home. Our experience is that children don’t ask for these. If they’re choosing birthday and Christmas presents they’ll choose something else. The marketing is aimed at parents or grandparents, other family members and as you say it’s about accelerating childrens’ learning. In our view the learning design is not very good on a lot of those, it kind of duplicates old fashioned ways of teaching concepts. We found that once the batteries run out sometimes parents didn’t bother replacing them because the children weren’t asking to be able to continue playing with them.
MARIELLA FROSTRUP
Tanya should we be thinking more about how children of this young age engage with technology?
TANYA BYRON
Absolutely we should. I mean, you know, we are a digital, global economy. I mean apart from anything else we are now raising a generation to support us all financially in …
MARIELLA FROSTRUP
We hope!
TANYA BYRON
We hope in a digital economy. But I mean the problem is the moral panic that surrounds the conversation about children – particularly young children and technology – that technology will somehow replace traditional forms of learning - that technology will have negative and harmful impacts on children and these are things that have to be thought about but the thinking still ceases to be proportionate and balanced when we talk about children and technology.
MARIELLA FROSTRUP
But I image it’s also a control issue. In your review for the last government, say for children in a digital world, you highlighted neuro-scientific research that young children find it hard to distinguish between fact and fiction and I suppose in some ways that must inform how they are allowed to use digital technology at such a sort of vulnerable young age.
TANYA BYRON
Absolutely, but it’s something that we know because it informs the way we parent and educate young children in terms of the offline world, the real world. So we have supervision and management and that can be done in the online world. You can create walled gardens for children to exist in, profiles just for younger children that will just take them to a website that is created and moderated extensively for children of that age group and the content that they will be interacting with is appropriate for the age group. It can be done: we just need stop panicking and broaden our thinking about.
MARIELLA FROSTRUP
Helen, you have a young son. Do you panic? Do you give him technology to play with?
HELEN KING
I do panic. I find the phrase ‘moral panic’ an interesting one from Tanya because I’m consistently in a moral quandary about the kind of technology he should be allowed to use and he’s only 14 months old. My husband gives him my Blackberry to play with so that we can change his nappy without him moving. Because he sees us using that it’s something that Lydia said that he is learning from watching us. So he is watching me use an iPad and slide my hand across the screen and he now slides his hand across the screen. That scares me because …
MARIELLA FROSTRUP
Why does it scare you?
HELEN KING
I suppose partly because of the area that I work in. I work in child exploitation and I see the worst of how offenders use the internet and new technology, for example, now I’m aware that at 14 months old we will ensure that there is no way that he has access to online technology in the same way that older children would and as Tanya said, there are so things and I more than most know about what we can do to protect children whilst allowing them to have a good time, but on a personal level I find that very difficult and it is a constant balance for me to work out.
MARIELLA FROSTRUP
Julie we are talking about very young children, aren’t we?
JULIE JOHNSON
Mmm.
MARIELLA FROSTRUP
I mean some countries actually have guidelines …
JULIE JOHNSON
They do.
MARIELLA FROSTRUP
… in terms of how to deal with this. Do you think they should be using technology at all?
JULIE JOHNSON
I think up to three/four I possible would say that they may be with their parent, maybe reading a book on an iPad or maybe playing a game on an iPad or any tablet and not left on their own. That would be my personal opinion – just from my anecdotal work with children, adolescents and families. Yes.
MARIELLA FROSTRUP
Lydia, is there any evidence that using computers very early can do harm?
LYDIA PLOWMAN
No, there’s not really. I think the jury is out. At this pre-school age range people don’t need to worry too much. I mean the kind of advice that you were talking about, for instance the American Academy of Pediatrics says, ‘Children under two shouldn’t have any screen time at all and children over two should have not more than two hours a day.’ In fact most parents ignore that. They do what they feel is right for themselves and what we found is that their attitudes to their child’s learning, to their child’s friendships, to their child’s play – those are the important things and those are what shape the amount of screen time and other interaction time that children have with technology.
MARIELLA FROSTRUP
Tanya?
TANYA BYRON
Very young children whose neurons are being pronged; the connections are being made; the neuronal networks are being laid down – technology is going to have an impact in terms of how these neurons are firing and we don’t know very much about that yet but we know enough to know that we have to be very clear about the amount of screen time children have and what they’re experiencing and actually technology is not the most useful early life developmental experience for developing brains.
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