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Friday, Oct. 24, 2014

In our opinion: Raising digital kids

Deseret News editorial

Published: Sun, May 25 12:00 a.m. MDT

 Whether and how soon a child begins to tinker with computer toys is not the point. Instead, the question for families and institution of civil society are the best ways to enculturate and harness the power of digital tools and to teach digital literacy so that it has the same positive impact on civilization as iron-working, agriculture and the mechanical arts.

Whether and how soon a child begins to tinker with computer toys is not the point. Instead, the question for families and institution of civil society are the best ways to enculturate and harness the power of digital tools and to teach digital literacy so that it has the same positive impact on civilization as iron-working, agriculture and the mechanical arts.

(Igor Mazej, Getty Images/iStockphoto)

A half-century ago, America’s “Sputnik moment” cast the engineer as the hero on the frontier of space exploration. With space travel sputtering, a look back shows a much more impactful statement about the promise of science.

In 1965, Gordon Moore, who held a doctorate in chemistry, wrote an article in Electronics magazine about how the number of transistors on electronics circuits would double every two years. The modest projection is known as “Moore’s law.” It explains why today’s smartphones have a quarter-million times the data-storage capacity of Apollo 11’s onboard computer. But the law doesn’t begin to explain the implications the smartphone has on society, families and children.

As with the previous shifts of industrialization and urbanization, the digital revolution now seeps into everything. It is a defining hallmark of how life now differs from life a half-century ago. We’re all aware of how computing and communications have impacted industry, finance, government and entrepreneurship — as well as media, entertainment and the way extended families stay in touch. Education and health care are among the next major sectors to be transformed.

Even more far-reaching will be the impact upon those children now “growing up digital.” This is the post-millennial generation, sometimes referred to as “Generation Z,” or simply the “digitals.” In a three-part series in the Deseret News National Edition beginning on Monday, reporter Chandra Johnson chronicles how digital culture is changing the very rearing of children: their games and toys, their reading habits, their social identities.

One small example of this is a company called Play-i, which makes a toy robot that can be modified through software code manipulated by a child as young as age 4 or 5, younger than most elementary-aged kids involved in programming.

“A lot of people believe that programming right now is what reading and writing used to be 100 years ago,” said company co-founder Saurabh Gupta. “It’s almost at that level. Our goal is not to build an army of programmers. We’re going to teach them a skill that will help them no matter what they do.”

Whether and how soon a child begins to tinker with computer toys is not the point. Instead, the question for families and the institution of civil society is what are the best ways to enculturate and harness the power of digital tools and to teach digital literacy so that it has the same positive impact on civilization as iron-working, agriculture and the mechanical arts.

One of the ironies of our technology era is that families — the very best place to be tutored and socialized in work, education and problem-solving — are under so much stress themselves.

Nick Schulz, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, drove this point home in a monograph titled “Home Economics: The Consequences of Changing Family Structure.” As employment has moved away from agricultural and manufacturing labor, jobs today “often require the use of sophisticated technology and the ability to learn and adapt in a dynamic environment. Such an environment relies much less on physical prowess and much more on softer capacities such as education, willingness to learn and solve problems, and useful social and personality skills.

“America’s service economy keeps growing, requiring a different set of skills for an individual to succeed,” continued Schulz. “(Today’s jobs) are increasingly technology intensive and require the steady and ongoing accumulation of knowledge and social skills.”

There are skills that can help today’s “digitals” become continual learners and creative problem-solvers. They don’t involve cutting oneself off from technology but do involve principles of balance and moderation.

Much has been made about the teenager’s proclivity to be umbilically connected to her or his smartphone. An expert quoted in the piece says that a young adult “would no more be out and about without a phone than they'd go without underwear.” That’s one reason many experts are rediscovering the benefit of a day of rest in the digital age.

Many of the best ways to raise “digitals” are as simple as taking time to listen. Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age,” interviewed more than 1,000 kids in writing her book. “I talked to one young woman who told me, 'They just asked me about my first semester in college for two seconds and then they stopped to make a dinner reservation.' This is not a way we want our children to feel. They do need to know that their parents cherish them.”

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