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Technology is reshaping childhood — should we be worried?

21 March 2014

Are children utterly obsessed with technology? Yes, is the obvious answer to that question, but debate about whether is it a good or bad thing rages around forums such as Mumsnet. Many believe the innocence of childhood has been ruined by unfettered access to the Internet, videos, games and goodness knows what else. Others instead think that every generation of children is different and parents have to move with the times instead of yearning for their own past.

I have to admit I’m a little biased. I built my first computer when I was six and spent most of my teenage years faffing around with websites and attempting to code. No doubt I missed out on the joyful pursuits of kicking a football but I loved every minute of it. Now, I use technology almost exclusively for work purposes and spend little time playing with with tech for its own sake. Maybe I overloaded when I was a child? Or maybe it’s growing up?

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It’s not just at home that computers (which includes tablets, watches, phones) have become one with children. Schools are now more akin to Apple Stores than quiet chambers of learning. In the Spectator’s independent schools supplement last year, I looked at how technology is changing the classroom and the three distinct phases of its evolution:

‘The third phase is the one schools have entered today. Computers and curriculum now have a symbiotic relationship. Thanks to Moore’s law, which states that the power of computing doubles approximately every two years, pupils now hold more technological power in their hands than an entire school had 30 years ago. Tablets and iPads are ubiquitous, with one for every pupil in some cases. Lessons can be recorded and distributed as podcasts. Notes and teaching materials are stored online through virtual learning environments, fully accessible from home. ICT is being replaced with more sophisticated computing or computer science courses.’

Whether the rise in technology is damaging a child’s development or creating a superior learning environment is the very topic of the next Spectator event. We’ll be examining the always-on generation with a stellar lineup including the Culture Minister Ed Vaizey, the psychologist and author Oliver James, our Wiki Man columnist Rory Sutherland and Microsoft’s chief online safety officer Jacqueline F. Beauchere. Book your tickets here!

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Show comments
  • Bonkim

    Meccano of the 1930s to 50s generation – youngsters will always latch on to technology and why not? An inquisitive brain is more valuable than kicking football.

  • ButcombeMan

    A grandchild of mine (commenting on my general knowledge and my having read a lot) told me it was not really necessary to learn a lot of facts any more it was more important to learn to be smart enough to know where and how to look for information and how to judge reliability.

    Lot of truth in that, it is not just childhood that is being reshaped.

    • ClausewitzTheMunificent

      This is I think an argument which is fallacious in the extreme, even if outwardly convincing. In the first instance, learning isn’t about “learning lots of facts” it is about assimilating internally consistent bodies of knowledge which shape our neural pathways and both provide us with information to analyse and the ability to do so. To state that one can go straight to the analysis without having gathered the information is I think wrong, if on no other grounds, then that it is not possible to make something of nothing.

      • ButcombeMan

        So full of your own importance you completely missed the point a 13 year old made.
        Human knowledge is expanding exponentially.

  • terence patrick hewett

    Children do not have the appearance of being obsessed with either science, technology or engineering; which deal with how the world works: arguably they are obsessed with computer toys: which is rather a different thing.

  • Kitty MLB

    Most certainly we should be worried. Children should be out in the fresh air,
    they should interact with other children and adults. Learn to think for themselves
    instead of a little gadget telling them all the answers.
    I am fully aware that children need to be familiar with technology which progressing rapidly, but when the little darlings cannot stop staring at a screen, even to have dinner or on holiday then there is a problem- especially with grunting instead of talking- I see them when we are away- parents trying to make conversation with kiddies.
    We have a little thing could a brain, which invented the computer- not the other way around, its there as an additional aid but must not replace the human mind.
    Someone I am vaguely acquainted with a fellow called Stephen Hawkins even believes computers will take over one day.
    I believe also children in say 20 years time will no longer be reading traditional books
    and will forget how to write- it may sound far fetched but its possible.

    • National Conservatism

      All this is true – and it is entirely avoidable, so long as parents make the choice to determine the balance of their child’s activities and allow them access to technology without it overwhelming their lives or excluding a well rounded upbringing that includes reading, physical activity etc. It falls apart, however, when parents realize it is easier just to let them play a computer game than think of an activity or actually talk to them and educate them.

  • Dan Grover

    I think it´s a fine balancing act. Too much and I think they´re become a little too… involved with it. Too little, though, with too many restrictions and you end up crippling the child by making them less prepared for a world in which these devices are and will continue to be an integral part. Tech skills that used to be listed on job adverts and basically just assumed to be held by basically everyone now, like familiarity with operating systems and word processors etc. You don´t want to end up in a situation like with Welsh nationalists who raise their children speaking Welsh believing it to be in their best interests, only to find that their borders are significantly smaller than if they´d learnt English.

    I think I´m around the same age as Sebastian here and had a similar fascination with computers as a kid. I´m now a technical director at a technology focused company which I couldn´t be without all those years of … well, accidentally breaking the family PC and then rushing around like mad trying to fix it before anyone discovered my folly. It´s amazing how quickly one can learn about how things work when they´re put under the appropriate pressure!

    My time on the internet (I got a 56k modem for my 9th birthday) was limited by my mother needing to use the phone without getting an earful of “CCHHHHGGGKKKKK” white noise, so that probably helped force me outside. Not so these days!

  • D Whiggery

    It’s difficult to say whether it’s good for human development.

    I fear that where machine labour has led to less human physical labour and a more sedentary and flabby population, so technology could end up doing the same to our intellectual labour. Why bother with acquiring knowledge when it can be stored in the cloud and will one day be able to be directly fed into our brains.

    Just as today where many people go to the gym or swimming pool to replace the exercise that their parents would have got at work, they’ll also have to stimulate themselves more intellectually outside of work too, or just become intellectually flabby instead.

  • swatnan

    We should be worried. There are 7 Ages of Man/Woman, and 2 of those Ages are being destroyed by Technology. Children need to learn by active play not staring at a screen or voting at 16.

  • David Coveney

    If you use computers the right way, they’re a great tool! My nearly four year already has some of the fundamentals of algebra in his head thanks to the DragonBox game, and navigating around the family Surface is easy for both our toddlers. The downside is that they get surprised when not all screens turn out to be touch sensitive, but I daresay our friend’s TV will recover in time from the insistent poking it’s received.

    But everything in moderation, right? Either way, should be an interesting debate – wish I could be there!

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