Six year olds and digital technology: it’s time for a grown-up conversation

I was annoyed to read today’s Guardian article “Ofcom: six-year-olds understand digital technology better than adults” and to hear a simplistic discussion on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. It reminds me of those awful meetings where people tell me digital inclusion is not worth worrying about as all young people know everything about the internet and they’ve all got smartphones, and we just have to wait until all the older offline people die. God give me strength.

The research being quoted is part of Ofcom’s Communications Market Report – that “measures confidence and knowledge of communications technology to calculate an individual’s ‘Digital Quotient’ score, or ‘DQ’”. The research report itself is fine, it’s the trivial DQ test and the shallow way that BBC Radio 4, The Guardian and Ofcom’s press team are promoting it that is so frustrating.

Under the heading “How tech savvy are you?” you work out your DQ via a series of questions to find your score. The questions involve: how much you know about 4G, Google Glass and 3D Printers for example; how much you talk to your friends and family about new technology or new gadgets; and questions about online activities such as watching TV shows, uploading photos and videos, SMS and instant messaging. Maybe the most worrying question is “I wouldn’t know what to do without technology” (Agree/Disagree) – which I disagreed with – I love technology and my gadgets but I know what to do if I didn’t have them. As you would expect, my DQ score is 129 and above average and 16 points higher than the highest scoring age group in the DQ chart – the 14 – 15 year olds.

The “children know more about technology than their parents” simplistic rhetoric was wheeled out again this morning on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Although a bit of simple maths shows that the mothers of the “six year olds” (trumpeted in The Guardian) have an average age of 36. The average DQ score of a 36 year old is 103 and the DQ of an average six year old is 98 – even using the same silly metric, the parents have a higher DQ than their kids.

My main issue with this reporting is that using technology isn’t the same as knowing what it means to use it – skills aren’t the same as knowledge, digital society isn’t the same as 3D printers and Smart Watches. Being a person is about thinking, creating, communicating, building things – it’s not about clicking and gadgets. A great programmer is a great programmer because of their thinking skills and most importantly their ability to determine the outcome they want to achieve.

I have lots of respect for the work of Dr Ellen Helsper of the LSE, who has led research that shows any equation that says young people = good digital and old people = bad digital is just far too shallow to be useful in debates about the digital world we live in. Ellen says “The discourse around young people being tech savvy because they are online all the time and feel comfortable in a digital world is dangerous. It plays to the myth of young people as digital natives, as if there are no individual differences between children, it ignores the fact that research has shown over and over again that some young people require help, that even those who are confident are often digitally naïve and make rash decisions about where to go, who to talk to and what to do online. It takes away responsibility from adults (parents, educators, governments) in helping young people navigate and learn how to live in a digital world, a digital world that is our world, a world with which adults actually have a lot of experience.”

Emma Mulqueeny’s blogging about 97ers stems from her experience working with amazing young programmers through YRS, and being a parent of a 97er (someone born in 1997 or after). She says: “The 97ers are already immersed in this web of learning. ….  they are there playing, interacting, growing up, making mistakes, testing boundaries, making boundaries, exploring things they find interesting or funny and more importantly – sharing their discoveries. .. But it is not the internet that is doing this, it is the networked communities the children find online, people stripped of physical boundaries and prejudices they face daily in school and life, an open forum of communities they can opt into or out of.” Emma is talking about a digital world where young people are creating a very different community than I did when I was young – they are young people who are inquisitive and articulate, and that’s a long way from an Ofcom DQ of ‘knowing about 3D printers’ or ‘not knowing what to do without technology’.

I’m excited to know that the young people of today will be shaping the digital world that I will grow old in. They will shape that world with experiences different to mine and some of them will do brilliant, important, things with technology that none of us have even dreamed of. Some of them will be brilliant politicians, plumbers, charity leaders, entrepreneurs, teachers, chefs, nurses, programmers, data analysts, social workers, and gardeners. They will have the potential to use digital tools that make their, and other people’s, lives better and they will face new challenges and problems.

We are not robots – adults and children alike. We have different luck and different lives to one another. Ellen Helsper will be publishing research later in the summer that shows again, sadly, the massive gulf in the digital knowledge and expectations of children who do or don’t have the internet at home.

Yes, I love technology. Yes, young people have a difference digital experience that adults. Yes, we should embrace change. Yes, many adults constrain young people with out-dated constructs. Yes, digital is a tool for good and for evil.

Isn’t time we reject the shallow discourse about youth and digital, and have a grown up conversation about it?

5 thoughts on “Six year olds and digital technology: it’s time for a grown-up conversation

  1. Pingback: Six year olds and digital technology: it’s time for a grown-up conversation – Helen Milner | Public Sector Blogs

  2. Pingback: CommsWatch » Ofcom’s Communications Market Report 2014

  3. The older people have such a hard job connecting to poor service with help desks in countries who can’t speak english so they remain analogue. It’s just too much fuss and it’s too easy to do things the old way. Until everyone has a fit for purpose connection many won’t even try to get online. I agree the test was pretty rubbish though, but that is what happens when consultants get paid to run tests and tick boxes.

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