Can we think together about kids and the internet?

I'm sorry, again, for abandoning this space for a while. I'll save you all the long-winded winging (wingeing?) about work and family and preparing to relocate to a different continent and so on. Suffice it to say that I'm a tad overwhelmed. So, in the hopes of trying to bring my work life closer to what I write in this space, so that each can inform the other and I can feel less pulled in 10,000,000 directions, I thought I'd throw out a question to all you fabulous, thoughtful parents.

A bit of background: I've been doing some very preliminary research on the social and emotional (as well as cognitive) implications of children growing up online/plugged in/tech savvy. Among other core questions, I've been asking myself the following basic question: What are the social and emotional differences between digital "natives" (those who have grown up never knowing a world without the internet) and digital "immigrants" (most of us basically, those who may have whole-heartedly adopted technology and the use of the internet, but who have NOT grown up with it)? The distinction between digital native and immigrant was made by Marc Prensky, an innovative thinker in my mind (among other things, he works on trying to figure out how "gaming" can be used for educational purposes and how students', teachers' and parents' learning goals may best be met by harnessing the characteristics and benefits of online gaming).

There is some, but precious little, research on the real hard-core questions about children's online lives. Most of the developmental research has focused on self-reports of children's time spent on Facebook and other social media outlets. I find the implications of growing up with online social media fascinating, but I'm bored by the types of self-report, questionnaire studies that simply ask kids to report what they're doing in these spaces. I'd like to think more along the lines of the potentially massive social, cognitive and emotional implications and to start designing studies that DON'T rely on self-reports. There are massive changes that are being introduced or proposed to boards of education and to parents alike — most of these recommendations or proposals will be implemented with almost no research to back up their implications. Here's just one example of reforms proposed for reading and the like in the UK. So there's no time to lose in terms of asking new questions about the online worlds of our children. Here are some of the things I'm wondering about. I'd love to hear your feedback on how important you think these questions are. Even more interesting to me would be to hear about what you wonder about when it comes to your own children's development and how they're influenced by technology and the internet.

I wonder:

- Are digital natives (our children) more comfortable with uncertainty than we are?

- Do our children have shorter attention spans? Do they have a harder time sustaining attention to one task?

- When asked to think about a problem, do our children tend to think more "actively" (pointing and clicking away in trial and error sort of way towards an answer) rather than more "contemplatively" (taking time to sit back and simply think, without pursuing information outside of the self)?

- Are our children able to remember less than we do (possibly due to the many prosthetics we use… but maybe not, we've been using calendars and notebooks for a long, long time)?

- Do our children feel more or less connected to a community than we do? How does this sense of community, if it does exist, impact on feelings of civic responsibility, political values, and so on?

- Are our children more or less lonely than we were during adolescence?

- Are friendships that were formed online any different than "real life" friendships for "natives?" Does the nature of online friendships differ for digital natives vs immigrants?

- What are the essential "literacies" of the information/online age? (e.g., critical thinking skills, self-direction, focus, communication skills, programming)? How different are these from the essential skills that digital immigrants needed to cultivate?

- What do/will our children consider "private" vs "public"? Is this different for natives vs immigrants?

- How do social hierarchies form online? Do these social hierarchies (status levels) mimic the ones in the playground/schoolyard/hallways?

I have tons more, but I'll stop now. You can see I'm all over the place in terms of my interest in this very broad field (or very narrow, depending on your perspective). What do you think? Do you think your children will think fundamentally different than you did because they will be growing up "digital?" Or do you think that the online world won't make such a huge impact on the basics of development? What do you wonder about in terms of your own children's development and their online involvement?

16 thoughts on “Can we think together about kids and the internet?

  1. I like this post. I think mostly that the more things change, the more things stay the same. Adolescence is still a awful crazy time for kids for example. Cell phones have probably changed kids lives though, and parenting now that I think about it. No more, “get off the phone, I’m expecting an important phone call”. But the point being, different challenges are poised, not necessarily better or worse. I plan on having a family computer in the main area of the house that all the kids can use, and mom and dad, instead of computers in their rooms, just like we plan to with t.v. There’s both a self-sensor of behavior if you know that mom might pop in at any moment and a more collaborative thing about that. I’m not sure about cell phones, haven’t figured that one out. :)
    I myself might call myself a native although in relation to kids now, I’m an immigrant. I grew up with computers, had Prodigy from when I was 10 on, rather than infant on. But on the other hand, I still like my “old media” newspapers and regular books. I see my younger inlaws are very saavy about online privacy and information, even more so than some “immigrant” adults. I was thinking the other day if they still teach long division or do they just teach how do divide in Excel. Guess we’ll figure it out as we go along. :)

  2. I think those questions are unavoidable and hugely important. Why?
    I see among friends an increasing tendency not to communicate face to face over important issues or feelings. I was just reading this morning how teens do so much texting etc. etc., and I’m often bewildered these days by people’s increased lack of social skills (graces): successful/appropriate communication, empathy/sympathy for others, respectful conversation, emotional intelligence, tact/politeness.
    Perhaps there’s no correlation, but in my own life, conversations keep migrating to email, Facebook, etc., and nobody wants to take time to talk on the phone or in person. I have married friends who text each other. Yes, I am concerned about my child’s future relationships.

  3. My daughter is still too young to really be considered “digital” – she’s just figured out that the keys on the keyboard are letters and she can, for instance, “press the N.” We don’t have a TV but she loves YouTube and .
    Like Shelby, I was a childhood immigrant to the digital world. Computers were in my life from elementary school on and the internet was taking shape when I was in early high school. I used some of the earliest instant-messenger programs in university. Also, due to my father’s early-adopter habits and my mother’s crazy safety fears, I had a cell phone from about age 15 on. But now I am a comparative luddite. I use chat programs relatively infrequently and I don’t own a cell phone. But the internet is my life. I have no local friends or family, and the way I communicate with my distant friends and family is Facebook. I think the social connections there (and here on this blog!) are just as “real” as face-to-face ones.
    Is it changing our children’s brains? Of course! Everything they encounter is changing their brains! For better or for worse? I’m not sure that’s possible to answer because the terms are poorly defined. Is it better to hold much knowledge in your mind or be able to seek out almost any knowledge fast? Is it better to read people face-to-face or know how to negotiate a social situation without those cues?
    Glad to see someone will be researching this in a rigorous way. Please summarise your research for us in layperson terms when you have results.

  4. I’m curious to know if our children’s generation will lose skills like map reading and navigation, because of satellite navigators.
    I also wonder if they will be more knowledgeable about certain hands-on skills, like DIY (because they can go online to figure out how to fix a broken fuse).
    We use Skype to video chat with my parents and in-laws 2-3 times per week. This means that though we live in the UK, my son gets to “see” his grandparents in Hong Kong and the US. This has meant that they have been as much a part of his growing up as possible, giving that we live oceans away from our parents.
    My husband’s family is extremely verbal – they (we) talk about our thoughts and feelings all the time. I suspect that growing up in such an environment/family culture will still have an impact, even if he’ll be growing up in the world of text messages, emails, and tweets.
    On the other hand, my dad is quite non-communicative verbally/face-to-face, and I remember realising that email was helping me and him communicate more frequently. It might not be quality heart-to-heart talk, but I have felt much more involved in his life since he got his Blackberry about 8 years ago.
    Sorry, just a random jumble of thoughts! Can’t wait to hear/read about the research.

  5. I think the internet has helped to recreate communities that have been broken up by geographic mobility. My great aunts and uncles read the blog about my children (1, 1 and 3) but we don’t regularly exchange letters or e-mails.
    I, too, am worried about the decline in direction and map skills due to the prevalence of GPS. But for those who never developed those skills, it could be like providing eyeglasses to the nearsighted- not a bad thing.
    I suspect that this is not a topic for which research can offer any clear answers. A research psychologist commented, “Research on spanking is agenda driven. I don’t trust it.” I suspect that internet research may be similar, because it’s measuring something that may be either good or bad. (One study showed significantly better outcomes in low-income children who were spanked than not spanked. In looking at the study, it appeared to me that children who were spanked had someone who cared about them and those who were not spanked were likely to be neglected in general. Sorry, can’t find source)

  6. I feel powerless to some extent because Evie is 19 months and who knows how much more pervasive the internet might become in our culture by the time she’s in school? So my strategies at this point are to be a good role model for her in how to use the internet as a tool and the importance of developing face-to-face friendships in the community. Once she’s older we intend to keep the computer in a family room and out of her bedroom. Of course we’ll install some sort of porn blocker at some point, and monitor her use, but I don’t want to restrict her too much because I know that kind of strictness just creates rebellion in many kids and she’ll have opportunities to break my rules in school and at friends’ houses.
    Actually, I might be more afraid of cell phones than of the internet, when it comes to parenting her in the future. The textbot phenomenon is terrifying to me.

  7. Here’s my opinion, not that I have any evidence to back it up:
    I think that although the internet is new(ish), the things people do with it are not. People shop, chat, read, write, play games, look at pictures of all kinds from high art to porn, use it to look up information, help them remember things, and so on. But if you stop and think about it, are any of those things really so different than their non-digital equivalents? The things that frighten parents about the internet aren’t really that new; procrastination-helpers and porn and violence and evil bullying schoolmates and predatory old men wouldn’t go away if the internet suddenly ceased to exist.
    So yeah, kids will USE the internet to do all sorts of things, including cause (or find) trouble – but those same kids would cause/find trouble no matter what.

  8. Yes, like Shelby I’d remark that some of us are “in between.” My father had a lot of the early computer technology for work, but for instance we didn’t use mice until later, I first tried chat in junior high, the “internet” as we know it now came into being while I was in college, etc. I wonder what looking at our age group could say about immigrants vs. natives, but of course then there’s all the confounding complications that difference in age alone will introduce.
    And, like Shelby and Irene both, I think that to a large extent, the more things change, the more they stay the same. However, after watching a kid on an airplane watch videos he’d downloaded of people being killed in various ways … I think I will keep computers in a common room until I feel like my kids are old enough to have productive conversations about what we can find out there on the internets. And maybe afterwards.

  9. I’m sorry, but I can’t agree with the statement that research on spanking is agenda-driven or that in general kids were not spanked because they were neglected! Seriously?
    Many of us choose to practice positive discipline at home because *it works* and it IS working harder at parenting than merely spanking. Positive discipline is not neglectful.
    Thirty-forty years of research on spanking done by dozens and dozens of different people all agenda? It’s a conspiracy now?
    I’m really offended by the idea that my choosing not to hit my child could be interpreted as an act of neglect. What is that psychologist’s name?

  10. @ Jennifer:
    I’m not saying it’s a conspiracy. I’m saying that research can’t distinguish between parents that spank because they’re out of control and parents that spank because we view it as philosophically acceptable. (Try explaining to your pediatrician why your 1 year old twins are covered with bites and bruises because your 3 year old “just isn’t ready” to stop biting and hitting.)
    Researchers need to find families who would be willing to either spank or not spank over their children’s lives. Most families who practice only positive discipline are not in the bottom decile socioeconomically, which was (I estimate) the situation of most of the study.
    Children given up at birth to foster care who are never spanked (due to foster care requirements) still end up with more life challenges, because other life factors dominate the effect of spanking or not spanking.

  11. one thing I noticed about myself when I started to use a computer for writing was that I was a lot more willing to make mistakes, because of the ‘backspace’ and ‘delete’ buttons. I wonder if this somehow translates to non-computer activities- will digital-raised kids be somehow less careful, because they think there’s a magical delete or backspace button?
    I’ve also noticed in high school students i work with sometimes that they do seem to have a short attention span for finding an answer- Isabel referred to this as “active problem solving”. All the clicking and poking, rather than sitting back with a pencil, slowing down, and thinking about it.
    On the positive side I think it’s awesome that I can be talking to my boys about how they look like twirling dervishes, then get on youtube and find video, right away.

  12. I actually don’t think there is much difference between immigrants and natives. People are lazy and will opt for the easiest way to do something even if it was acquired at a later stage in life.
    I am thinking about calculators. When I went to school we were not allowed a calculator until we hit grade 7. We had to learn all our multiplication tables and how to do long division etc and so on. Enter the calculator and all of a sudden I find myself punching in numbers that I _could_ do in my head, but, out of laziness, choose not to. And the skills get less sharp the less I use them. Even if I do in fact know how to I just don’t.
    I also think there are different types of learners. More contemplating ones and the ones that rapid-fire try (and err) themselves through the learning process. And Internet does maybe favour one of them, but does by no means exclude the other extreme.

  13. Wow, there is a lot in this post and comments to think about. I’m not sure how to organize my thoughts. Apologies if this devolves into free-association rambling….
    1. I think that being technologically savvy is going to be a key skill for our kids. Computers (and now, mobile devices) are here to stay, and I think being able to use them well will be an important success criteria.
    Or, I could just be making myself feel better about the fact that we got our daughter a “computer” for her 3rd birthday. It was what she asked for. We picked out a toy that looks like a laptop and has games (which are mainly educational and pretty old school). She likes some of the games, but she also likes to just type on the keyboard… pretending to be like us, I suppose.
    2. I’ve noticed a difference between people who are comfortable with computers and those who aren’t. Those who are comfortable are willing to try things out and see if they work (on the computer). Those who aren’t are stuck if things don’t go exactly as expected. I wonder how this fits in with the native/immigrant idea?
    3. The privacy thing fascinates me. My younger colleagues are comfortable putting A LOT of info out there, associated with their real name. I, clearly, blog with a pseudonym, although anyone who knows me and finds the blog will recognize me. I also have a (much smaller) internet presence associated with my real name, associated with work-related topics. I’ve been struggling to figure out how to handle privacy overall. I don’t have a Facebook account yet because I can’t decide how I want to handle it. I anticipate that the privacy issue will be one that causes conflict in our house as the kids get older- Hubby is even more concerned about it than I am. I suspect our girls will be more like my younger colleagues.
    3. I use internet surfing as a way to break up deep thinking work, and as a way to let a problem percolate away for awhile. I find that to be very valuable- I solve some of my hardest problems at work while it looks like I’m goofing off. Luckily, I have yet to run into a boss who is more concerned about appearances than results, but I know that this is a risk. I think it will be interesting to see how the rules for technology use at work change over the next 20 years or so. I already struggle to write reasonable IT policy! (That is one of my responsibilities at work.)
    There is a lot more in my head, but I can’t really get it organized. I may come back later….

  14. I started using the internet as an early adolescent, so while I’m not a native like my 3-1/2-year-old son is, I’m also not as much an immigrant as my parents. We had computers in our house as long as I can remember, by virtue of my father’s profession as a programmer/electrical engineer, and my mom taught me to touch-type when I was 8, a skill which comes in mighty handy (harhar) in today’s world.
    I think the “native” aspect really hit home for a me a couple of months ago when my husband got an iPod Touch. He found some games geared toward young kids and handed the iPod to our older son. Who promptly completely understood how to use it, what to do, and how it worked. This is a kid who has trouble following directions for washing his hands, but he has no problem selecting a picture to “color,” choosing what colors he wants, and coloring, then choosing a new picture. (Hats off to Apple for creating something THAT intuitive, that a three-year-old can figure it out without much help.)
    I have a very strong internet presence in my own name, mostly on Facebook and LiveJournal. There’s definitely an aspect of exhibitionism. I think most teenagers have an intense desire to be SEEN doing whatever will get them seen. That is, they might decide to climb Mt. Everest and blog about it, or they might decide to shoot rats in the street and put up a YouTube video, and either way, they’re happy to be recognized. I do think the internet is making it harder for kids to separate right and wrong, because while we’re not THAT anonymous, we’re also faceless, so we might be willing to do things online that we would NEVER do in real life. (I say “we,” like I’m still a teenager. Hah. I’m 28. Oh well.)
    I also think we do have the issue of declining rules of grammar and spelling. That makes me sad.
    When I got my internet-capable phone and could check my email anywhere I was, I realized that I was indeed checking my email constantly. How did I survive when I could only check my email when I was sitting at my computer? How did anyone survive when it took several days to receive a letter in response to correspondence?! I do think today’s kids will have a greater need for instant gratification. Will they have the patience to sit in a library for hours searching through the stacks when they could much more easily use Google to find the exact book and page they need as long as they find the right search terms?
    Our kids’ world is different from ours. But I don’t think right and wrong have changed. We have the obligation to teach values to our kids, whether those values apply on the internet or when interacting with friends at school. I don’t think the internet alone changes any of that.

Leave a Reply