Pope Francis has taken aim at today’s youth by urging them not to waste their time on “futile things” such as “chatting on the internet or with smartphones, watching TV soap operas”.
He argued that the “products of technological progress” are distracting attention away from what is important in life rather than improving us. But even as he made his comments, UK communications regulator Ofcom released its latest figures, giving the opposite message. It celebrated the rise of a “tech-savvy” generation born at the turn of the millennium and now able to navigate the digital world with ease.
So what’s it to be for youth and the internet? Time-wasting and futile? Or the first to benefit from the wonders of the digital age?
This debate has been raging since children first picked up comic books and went to Saturday morning cinema. The media, it has long been said, makes kids stupid, inattentive, violent, passive, disrespectful, grow up too early or stay irresponsible too long. Whatever it is that society worries about in relation to children and young people, it seems that we love to blame it on the latest and most visible technology. Anything rather than looking more closely at the society we have created for them to grow up in.
Fifteen years ago, when children were being criticised for watching too much television (remember those days?), I asked children to describe what happened on a good day when they got home from school and what happened on a boring day. From six year olds to seventeen year olds, the answers were the same: on a good day, they could go out and see their friends; on a boring day they were stuck at home watching television.
And why couldn’t they go out and see their friends every day? Far from reflecting the appeal of television, the answer lies in parental anxieties about children going out. As a 2013 report noted, children are far less able to move around independently than in the past. This is particularly true of primary school children, who are often no longer allowed to walk to school or play unsupervised as they once were. Their developing independence, their time to play, their opportunities to socialise are all vastly curtailed compared with the childhoods of previous generations.
And yet the number of children who have accidents on the road has fallen over the years and there has been little change to the rate of child abductions, which remain very rare.
There is little evidence that children are choosing to stay home with digital technology instead of going out. Indeed, it seems more likely that an increasingly anxious world – fuelled by moral panics about childhood – is making parents keep their kids at home and online. And then, to pile on the irony, the same society that produces, promotes and provides technologies for kids also blames them for spending time with them.
And even while Ofcom says children are getting a digital head start, it fails to tackle some pressing issues in its work. Children are rated as tech savvy by Ofcom if they own or use a device. No thought is given to whether they actually have a critical understanding of that device. It doesn’t ask whether the digital generation can spot when someone is trying to sell them something or capture their data. These are skills that will be fundamental if they are to thrive in the digital world as adults.
Both the Pope and Ofcom should note too that children can do useful things online but that many are missing out. The digital world enables us to make our own films, express political views and share media with others but many children don’t get the chance. A 2013 Ofcom report found 51% of 12-15-year-olds in the UK had made or shared a film online and 16% had set up their own website. But there is a ladder of opportunity that shows younger and poorer children are missing out on these activities.
Surely we shouldn’t criticise children for wasting their time if they don’t do useful activities online or offline. Who is supporting them to use the internet in a critical, creative, collaborative or civic way? Do we even know what we’d like them to find at the [top of the ladder](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SyjbDUP1o0g](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SyjbDUP1o0g)?
Next time you hear a panicky message about technology ruining childhood – or, indeed, a celebratory message about technology’s benefits – take a moment to ask these questions: why are kids spending such a lot of time with technology and is there anything they’d rather be doing? Are they “just” using the technology or does it provide a means for them to engage more deeply with the world? Are there ways that we, as parents, teachers and as a society, could better support our children to be creative, to work with others and to take an active part in the world around them, be it online or outdoors?