Raising Children In a Digital Age
Our children have been born into a digital age that is developing faster than any other time in history. We cannot escape it and neither will our children. But is it actually as harmful and toxic to our children as many may believe? Throughout history, new breakthroughs in technology have always been met with suspicion and fear. When the first steam trains were invented, many people believed they would die if they rode on them. They feared the human body would not be able to withstand such speed!
Years ago, before my son was born, I was a Steiner Waldorf teacher. Those familiar with Steiner education will know it does not agree with children under the age of fourteen being exposed to any form of media and believes that children should be kept away from technology as much as possible. However, it is interesting that from a young age Rudolf Steiner himself was fascinated with technology. It may be a lovely idea to believe he spent his childhood playing in the woods, but the reality is that after his school day had ended, the young Rudolf would run straight to the telegraph office where his father worked and spend his time learning about the telegraph machine, which he found so exciting.
It is only natural for the next generation to embrace the new technologies of the present because it will be their future world. As their parents, we cannot imagine what that world will be like for them, but they are ones who will have to live in it. So, what part do we play as the parents of these children? I believe we are here to guide our children through this digital phenomenon in the same way we guide them through other issues in their lives.
The truth is that we need “Innovators” who will use the advances in technology to make a better world. The despairing state of climate change needs a future generation who will come up with new ways of harnessing sustainable and green energy. We cannot go backwards in time; we will not find solutions in the way we lived in the past. We live in a very different culture than our grandparents did. Wood burners may be have become a trendy rustic addition to our homes, but they are not a realistic answer to the world’s energy crisis. I love my open fire, but I am under no illusion that it does not serve my family as a sustainable and suitable heat source alone. So, will it be our children, with their ability to manipulate, create, and innovate new technology, who will save the world.
Social media is giving a voice to people all over the world, especially young people who seem typically more confident using this medium. They are exposing corrupt governments and corporations. Young artists are bypassing the stranglehold of record companies and media industries by producing and sharing their creativity freely on the Internet. It could be seen as a form of the people’s liberation.
Technology and Learning
Technology also lends itself to liberation in education. Most homeschooling and unschooling families will testify to how essential the Internet is in providing their children with educational resources. Online learning is becoming more and more popular, with the Open University’s Futurelearn and iTunes U, all offering courses for free. There is now a movement, predominantly in the USA, called “UnCollege.” One of the founding members is Dale Stephens who has written a book entitled Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will, which is the personal account of his own story as well as a guide to dropping out of college and making it in Silicon Valley.
You may also have heard of Sugata Mitra, who is Professor of Educational Technology at the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University, England. In 2013 he won the TED TALKS prize, which was to fund his project School in the Cloud. Audrey Watters, of the Hack Education website, writes “School in the Cloud is a self-organized learning environment based on his [Sugata Mitra’s] ‘Hole in the Wall’ and ‘Granny Cloud’ research. Mitra’s TED talks, which have been particularly successful, describe his organization's placing of computer kiosks into the slums of India. From there, street children have gained computer and English literacy skills without adult intervention.”
As a person who went to a “Bricks and Mortar” university and is still carrying around a large student loan debt, I can see the attraction of online learning and so will our children. I am meeting many young people who are choosing which university to attend on the criteria of how innovative they believe the tutors to be and the access to up-to-date equipment and technology, rather than selecting a university for its position on a list of top universities. I can see the next generation choosing not to buy into this at all and instead, organizing self-study groups through online learning.
My first reaction to Minecraft was one most parents would be guilty of, that is repulsion and confusion of how this world of blocky graphics could be such an attraction to so many children. This attitude changed as I first watched the delight my son took in exploring the possibilities of this virtual world and then the amazing creations he built, such as gigantic characters of Emit, Wildstyle, and God, inspired by the LEGO Movie.
Earlier this year, I designed and ran a six weeks Arts Award workshop in iPad Art with a group of seven- and eight-year-olds. The children were fascinated and excited when they discovered they could use iPads to draw and paint like “real” artists. We looked at the work of artist David Hockney who, at the age of eighty, carries his iPad with him everywhere he goes and creates the most beautiful landscapes.
My response to my original question of whether technology is harmful to our children? I am still navigating my way through this digital world, but I know that disapproving of or criticizing something my children see as their passion will only cause a sense of mistrust in our relationship. If I were to try to ban iPads and computers or limit their use to one hour a day, my children, like most children we know, would rebel by sneakily using them anyway. That does not mean we do not have any limits on computer time and yes, conflicts do arise, but mostly I try to join our children in their passions. I aim to become their guiding ally rather than their adversary. I also get to explore a new and often exciting world that, without my children’s guidance, I would never have discovered.