The effects of new technology on children

7th May, 2018

LBC Radio – Ian Dale Programme

Today was the 20th Anniversary of Apple’s 3 billion plus dollar empire and triggered this discussion on LBC. I’m often asked by talk-based radio shows to comment on the effects of new technology on children and young people and my key messages are for the adults in their lives to be as involved as possible and to talk with their children about the virtual world that can and does so easily draw them in. This is tune with various organisations’ advice and guidelines about how parents should be handling their children’s use of new technology, for example:
• The Children’s Society – see ‘Safety Net’ report
• The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC)
• Young Minds
• The Department for Education (DfE) (2016 Child safety on-line: a practical guide for parents and caters whose children are using social media, which draws upon Professor Tanya Byron’s governmental review and the 2016 ‘Safer Children in Digital World’

Clearly, there is a great concern about this subject and with good reason as it appears that many children and young people are over-using new technology at the expense of real life experiences that involve face-to-face interaction with others, creative play and physical activity. According to research three of five children aged twelve years or under have on-line accounts and are using social media on a daily basis. The links between the growing problems of childhood obesity, mental health issues and impoverished family life to name a few modern day ills are easy to make so when my discussion with Ian Dale began with his question “How damaging are these products to children’s educational development?” I wasn’t surprised. I answered by cautioning against the temptation to take too polarised and negative a stance saying that new technology was almost certainly a feature of today’s world and along with the drawbacks came many benefits so it wasn’t a question of either/or but and/both and that what children needed was to learn how to manage the potential overload and over-use and to be critical and discerning users. They also needed to be protected against and supported with the possible exposure to harmful material and cyber bullying.

A couple of years ago I participated in a project commissioned by the Stone Group, an IT services and technology company, in which children from over 70 different UK schools produced art about their views on technology. Specifically, they were asked to produce compositions of the inside of a computer, what WiFi looked like and also about staying safe on-line. I offered a psychologist’s view of the themes and ideas contained within the resulting artwork and a report was produced that underpinned the company’s nation-wide campaign. It was encouraging but also salutary to see the sheer range of individual interpretation and of how the boundaries between the virtual world and the real world appeared to be blurring in children’s minds. The rich creativity of the entries showed how comfortably today’s children incorporated technology into their individual inner worlds and, in so doing, had found another way of doing the playing and imagining, so necessary for development, learning and wellbeing. It was also clear that children saw computers as a means to accessing content, entertainment and activities rather than as an activity in itself. The important point of all this is that parents and teachers need to be as involved as much as possible and to be talking with children about their on-line activities and it is therefore as much a question of parents getting better informed as it is of monitoring and sanctioning children’s use of new technology.

The technology world’s financial and business ethic can’t, whatever clever marketing and media people claim, ever be compared to the motivations of parents and carers so it will always be up to the adults to care for the best interests of their particular children in their specific situations and to walk the talk in relation to healthy use of new technology. In terms of the educational pros and cons of new technology I’m of the view that there are many different benefits, for example, the abundance of easily accessed information and the mixed media high quality engaging audio-visual material. But and there is a but for me, teachers need to be prioritising, as I’ve already said, the development of children’s active and critical capacities. In other words, children should be encouraged to not be passive consumers and to question the idealised and sometimes wrong material that is available. In my ideal world government would harness the knowledge and experience of educational professionals and technology experts and consider some kind of social-media child consumer forum that had the power to give expression to children and young people themselves and help them to be an active part of a conversation about their wellbeing and the new technology. The Byron Report made many recommendations including creating a UK council on child internet safety, clear guidance on measures for schools and a voluntary code of conduct for the technology industry. Few of the suggestions have materialised as yet but are hopefully on the way. All complex social phenomena develop over time and the challenges that they throw up will take time to address too. I am confident that in the future the huge quantity of information that new technology such as that produced by market leader Apple will be balanced with wisdom.

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