THE BLOG

Children and Tech: We're Making a Mess of It

22/10/2014 12:42 | Updated 21 December 2014

British children are among the least confident and creative online of any in Europe. They are also the most monitored and restricted, according to the prestigious EU KIds Online project*. The implications are alarming: personally hampering and potentially economically disastrous.

Two new pieces of research released last week suggest that we are going the wrong ways about educating our children for a digital future. A report from the Oxford Internet Institute and the Parent Zone, A Shared Responsibility, shows that filters, monitoring and other restrictions have a limited effect in building children's resilience and may well be counter-productive. Children who are optimistic about the internet and believe that digital technologies benefit society are much more likely to engage positively online and know how to respond when they do come across undesirable material.

The LSE's Julian Sefton-Green and the Nominet Trust meanwhile released research exploring how children become the sort of adults who are creative online; who are, in the jargon, 'makers' - producing the digital products we use every day, such as games, websites and apps. Their conclusion was that it would be unwise to rely on the computing curriculum alone to create an internet-savvy generation: experiences out of school, such as hack days and coding clubs, have been vital for the current crop of makers. A young person's digital experience and achievement has been principally linked to personal contacts and extra-curricular interests. It bears little relation to academic achievement or the stage reached at school - suggesting, rather depressingly, that schools haven't been going the right way about educating children for the future.

It is of course too soon to judge the new computing curriculum, which only began in September. But even if the new lessons succeed in creating a generation of children who understand coding and, more importantly, computer thinking, the new curriculum is likely to have most of its impact on those who are still at primary school. For older children and young people, the need to create opportunities outside the classroom remains. (My son, 14, is already too old for the computing curriculum.)

Both of these pieces of research lead back to the importance of families and, especially, parents in helping children engage positively online. The conclusions from the first piece of research are a bit easier to respond to, if only because they call for skills similar to those that make for good parenting offline: the teaching of good judgement, openness to ideas, enthusiasm and a certain streetwise discernment. The requirements that derive from the second are a bit harder to fulfil: find someone who understands digital to enthuse your child; expose young people to the opportunities of tech; get them to extra-curricular clubs and activities that will equip them with the skills for the future.

It doesn't take much imagination to see that without more help for parents, these requirements could easily lead us towards a digital divide. Those who are already under pressure are less likely to be able to find the friends who work for Google or to be able to afford makers' clubs.

Families need support to make the most of the internet. This ought to be a priority because we are in danger of leaving large numbers of children behind, giving them fewer opportunities for creative fulfilment in leisure and at work. The implications for the economy of continuing to raise young people who are less confident online than our European neighbours are troubling. Parents need to be helped to see how their existing skills can be deployed online and to be offered ways of supporting their children's exploration, delight and creativity.

*Livingstone, Haddon et al. Net Children Go Mobile (EU Kids Online) http://www.netchildrengomobile.eu/reports/