Back to School

Cyber Kids


New child’s play, new children?

By Dominic Gates

JEREMY KOJIMA remembers using an Apple IIe computer when he was 3 or 4 years old. Now 17, he has his own office at his parents’ Toronto home, equipped with continuous Internet access. While doing his homework, he usually leaves open his Web browser, his e-mail program, and a Web chat program called ICQ for keeping in constant touch with his friends. On evenings, weekends, and vacations, Kojima makes money doing Web-design work.

“The Net has become an integral part of the way I work,” says Kojima, “I’m basically sitting in front of the computer from the minute I get home to the time I go to sleep.”

Welcome to the digital reinvention of childhood. Kids have a staggering breadth of material readily available online. Their reach is global. Nowadays school projects may be completed as cut-and-paste jobs, with hyperlinks to sources. Kids can chat freely with friends half a world away. Meanwhile, parents are torn. On the one hand, they scurry to ensure their kids are at ease with the high technology of the future; on the other, they are scared of what they hear might be lurking in cyberspace to derail their children.

What effect is Internet access having on a new generation of children? Some cyber-gurus gush about the unlimited potential of a generation “liberated from linear thinking.” Others worry that we’re raising a generation that is losing the ability to conduct logical, coherent discourse.

Is high technology reshaping the child? Or will the effect of the digital media on the young minds of the wired generation depend upon some decidedly old-fashioned factors?

Start Them Early, Rein Them In

KIDS TODAY often can get a high-tech start in life to satisfy the pushiest of baby-boomer power parents. What’s red and blue and yellow, with a big splash of Barney-purple, made of durable tantrum-proof plastic, features a keyboard designed for kiddy fingers, and a screen with large type and colorful pictures? A play computer? Yes. But one that nonetheless runs Windows 95–and costs $2,400.

Designed for kids aged 3 to 7 years, this newly available “fun and learning computer center” consists of a brightly colored plastic kiddy desk and computer console, complete with spill-proof keyboard and a barely-off-the-floor kiddy bench to seat two digital toddlers. It has an Intel Pentium chip, an internal CD-ROM drive, and a two-gigabyte hard drive, and it comes loaded with kids’ software. The manufacturers– IBM and the Little Tikes Co., a division of Rubbermaid– assert that the Young Explorer will give schools, day-care centers, and children’s hospital wards “an all-in-one computing solution.”

The kindergartens and preschools of America are ready. The Wall Street Journal reports that KinderCare Learning Centers has computers in all of its 1,151 child-care centers, while another offers computer training to children as young as 2. The Journal also reports a surge in the sale of software for babies. In 1997, parents bought $27 million worth of software targeted at infants ages 18 months to 3 years. Titles such as “Jumpstart Baby” from the Cendant Corp. reveal the marketing impetus: affluent boomers seeking to give their kids a head start in the information age. Who would want to disadvantage their kids by sending them to a preschool where the play equipment doesn’t rise above picture books, wooden blocks, and sandpits?

In one “Computertots” nursery school, the mother of a 3-year-old who was signally failing to give the computer screen his undivided attention told the Journal, “He’s got to keep up with the other kids. If he falls behind he’ll be lost.”

Commercial interests are happy to cash in on parents who push legitimate concerns to such extremes. By the time kids reach adolescence, though, parental obsession may swing in the opposite direction. It is estimated that nearly one third of America’s 20 million teenagers use the Internet. Many of those are more comfortable with digital media than their parents are. Often the worry is not whether they are coping with the new information technology, but what they are doing with it that their parents don’t know about. In any discussion of the dark sides of the Internet–whether pornography, hate sites, or cyber-predators–it is the potential for access by kids that stirs an impulse to censor. And then there is the fear of nerdiness.

How can it be healthy for kids, like Jeremy Kojima, to be “sitting in front of the computer from the minute I get home to the time I go to sleep”?

Actually, Jeremy’s mother, Anne Kojima, vice principal of a Toronto high school, has no such fear. Yes, Jeremy’s enthusiasm for the Net dominates his spare-time activities, but she knows her son is sensible and balanced. She insists that, despite his own impression to the contrary, he does spend time on face-to-face encounters as well as online ones. And his time online is directed:

“He’s not just having endless chats,” explains his mother, “He’s doing research for school projects or for the companies he works with.” One such company, KidsNRG, hires Jeremy not only to do computer design, but also to run Web development projects. He attends client meetings, seminars, and conferences, and acts as a mentor for new hires. He consults with top designers in the United States.

Far from turning him into a nerd, such exposure has brought out his personality and raised his level of confidence.

An Effusive View of the Net Generation

ONE REASON the Net has been such a positive experience for Kojima is readily apparent. He has involved parents, very aware of what he does and fully supportive of it. They have the means and the education to provide sensitive backup. They are ready with guidance and encouragement. With such a platform from which to launch, the only pitfall in his path might be having to cope with too much material success too soon.

Kojima is an exemplar of the “Net Generation” model teenager, which author and consultant Don Tapscott has glowingly portrayed in his book Growing up Digital. In an interview, Tapscott maintains that the new digital network media are creating “a whole new youth culture,” one that he lauds to the skies.

Tapscott contrasts the effects of the new media with the long-lamented deficiencies of television. “When they’re online, rather than being the passive recipients of somebody else’s broadcast video, [kids] are reading, analyzing, evaluating; they’re sifting good stuff from bad stuff; they’re authenticating; they’re writing, they’re composing their thoughts.” Then he adds, as if weary of the negative spin that pervades the media, “This is not bad for kids.”

Tapscott also warns that the baby-boomer generation better get ready for displacement at the workplace by this new culture. “There’s a demographic tsunami, in the United States alone of 80 million of these kids, that’s about to hit up against Dilbert Inc.,” says Tapscott. “Their culture is antithetical to the culture of the command and control hierarchy.”

He characterizes this new “interactive culture” as curious, assertive, self-reliant, and accepting of diversity. Among the major “themes” of the culture he identifies “fierce independence,” “emotional and intellectual openness,” and “innovation.”

Tapscott goes so far as to say that this digital revolution will transform today’s kids into something entirely new in the world. “Kids aren’t kids,” he says. “For the first time ever, children are an authority on a central innovation facing society.”

Listening to such descriptions, one cannot help thinking of Jeremy Kojima. A brave new world has opened for kids like him. Once they might have been bored in school; now they can interact with a machine and self-direct their youthful energy and passion to formidable creative heights.

Reality Check

BUT MOST KIDS don’t have the support and guidance Kojima has. And absent such support, the effects of access to cyberspace may be more limited. Even negative.

Professor James Collins, a specialist in writing and the teaching of writing at the State University of New York, at Buffalo, sees several educational problems surfacing among schoolkids that are directly traceable to their exposure to the online world. Kids who have trouble with writing are increasingly using the Internet to do mindless copying (those research project cut-and-paste jobs); the chattiness and informality appropriate to e-mail communication is spilling over into high school students’ essays; and many children are finding it difficult to distinguish between significant and trivial information.

(Contrary to Tapscott’s experience, Collins says, “The kids I know think that if it shows up on the computer screen, it’s true.”)

Collins has a broader problem with the claims of cyberspace visionaries that the interactive, hyper-linked modes of online expression will supersede older forms of communication and ultimately of thinking. Tapscott, for example, writes positively about “the idea that computers could free humans from linear thinking.”

But the result is often negative when what Collins calls the “hyper-text, logic-be-damned quality” of electronic discourse shows up in the classroom.

“Discourse moves in a line; there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end,” explains Collins. “That’s what took us out of the unscientific period of human thinking. We moved from mythology to science.” For Collins, linearity and logic go hand in hand, and from that springs rational scientific thought. Linearity indeed may be the hallmark of the Western contribution to civilization, including the field of computer science.

“Will we communicate in a linear way in the future?” asks Tapscott. “We write that way now because we have primitive writing tools. Maybe we’re going to write in hypermedia, where I as a recipient can have some influence over how this information is adjusted, depending on my cognitive and learning style.”

Collins is unconvinced. “Linear thinking is not the only way, but the linearity of discourse is of immense value,” he says. “I don’t think hyper-text and the undisciplined thinking it encourages is progress at all.” One outcome of the computer revolution, he suggests, is more words than ever–more text, more trees cut down for printout paper, and yet less thought and less logic.

The Universals of Youth

STRIPPING AWAY digital buzzwords like “interactive” and “non-linear,” it’s easy to spin around every positive label that Tapscott applies to the Net Generation. For fiercely independent, read ungovernable. For open, read empty. For innovative, read disrespectful of the past. For accepting of diversity (a quality supposedly fostered by the anonymity of online communication), read divorced from real-world problems. For assertive, read arrogant.

What is striking about this list, whether spun positively or negatively, is that you could apply it to any previous unwired generation. These are the characteristics of the young, not especially of the wired. Who could deny that the baby boomers had their share of independence/ungovernability or assertiveness/arrogance? This isn’t really such a revolution.

It should come as no surprise, though, that some of the qualities of childhood endure. After all, there are some rather fundamental universals. We are all trapped in time. Time’s arrow proceeds unerringly in a line. Language, the locus of our humanity, is linear. “Speech makes us human and literacy makes us civilized,” wrote the distinguished scholar David Olson of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in the Harvard Education Review in 1977. We speak in a linear mode. We write in a linear mode. That linearity imposes a logic that shapes our thinking.

If kids in the future have trouble putting their thoughts in order, getting their ducks in a line, then those thoughts will be literally unspeakable.

But there is no reason to expect the worst. In an afterword to The Future of the Book, the Italian scholar Umberto Eco discusses the alleged displacement of the traditional book by the new electronic media. “The problem is in saying that we have replaced an old thing with another one,” writes Eco. “We have both.”

Yes, online technology will give more power to a privileged elite within the new wired generation. But even lucky kids like Kojima still need a broader educational context to ground them, to wire them to the earth.

Some basics persist, even through revolutions. Despite the child’s newfound ability to interact with a machine, human interaction cannot be displaced. Good parenting and adult mentoring still matter more than any technology.

The new children are not so different from the old. Kids are still kids.

Reprinted, with minor emendations, with permission from PreText magazine.

From the August 13-19, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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