Give kids the gift of digital literacy

Eva Fog,
Digital pedagogue. Founder of DigiPippi.

One of my favorite pet peeves is the fact that we think of kids as digital natives.

It’s the same as me calling all people over 50 digital mummies. It’s a gross exaggeration, based solely on the years one has lived on this earth.

Or at least that’s the meaning the word has been imbued with over the last decade. What started out as a term used to describe the ever-growing number of kids who have never known the world without digital things, ended up as a phrase used to describe what some felt was a natural— almost inbred — ability to understand how digital stuff works. All because of when they were born. To me, that’s just rubbish.

When we were young, we were taught the importance of not putting knitting needles in power sockets.

Since when is your age the sole factor that accounts for the sum of experiences you have had in your life? Since when does your birth certificate give you ‘special powers’ that others will not possess easily?

I mean, I know some 60-year-olds who have more digital fluency than most 10-year-olds. So just because the 10-year-old has never had to live without the digital world, he or she is supposed to automatically be knowledgeable about it? I don’t think so!

When Digital Natives became a thing

The debate about whether or not kids are digital natives started back in 2001, when a man named Mark Prensky wrote about the Y generation as Digital Natives, the first generation surrounded with digital technology from birth. Since then it has been adopted by the entire world, and for some strange reason it ended up being a term used as an excuse for letting kids run loose in the digital world. “Oh, they’re always so good at it” or “they’re naturals,” are phrases often heard accompanying the title. A strange excuse and even stranger thought if you start dissecting it.

I’ve talked about the importance of a digital upbringing for years. It’s something we need to take very seriously and something that too few understand the importance of.

So: are kids natural digital users? Sure. And by that logic, we all know exactly how electricity and cars work because we’ve seen them and used them since birth! Just because something might be easier for those who have seen it all of their lives, doesn’t mean that they are naturals at it.

I have been around math all of my life, and I’m definitely not a natural at it! It took me years to learn why and how it worked, even though it’s always been around. The ways of the digital world are the same. Only a handful are lucky enough to have things come naturally to them. The rest of us have to learn like we learned about electricity and being safe on the streets.

Teaching is teaching, no matter the subject

When we were young, we were taught the importance of not putting knitting needles in power sockets, and that red means stop, and green means go. Basic things that later evolved into more specific instructions as we grew older. It’s a pretty simple principle of learning: start slow, making sure nobody kills themselves, and then up the amount of data as you go. It’s the same principle whether it’s electricity, math, or digital literacy we’re dealing with.

Our kids need to get to know the digital world, and we — the adults — are the ones who should introduce them to safe ways of doing just that. I’ve talked about the importance of a digital upbringing for years. It’s something we need to take very seriously and something too few understand the importance of. Why? Because it takes a whole new perspective of looking at the way we raise kids when we add the digital world to the mix.

Though I see the idealism in the feat, it’s a hard path to walk in the world we live in.

And it has to be. There’s no way of avoiding it if you want to live in the same world as the rest of us. The second we enter the world, the first things we see are the backside of mobile phones and tablets, with people filming and taking pictures of us. Many relatives and friends will not see the baby in person before having met it digitally.

And we are meeting each other digitally more and more due to the rapid expansion and use of social media. So knowing this—and knowing how much time adults spend using the digital world—why shouldn’t it be a priority to teach kids the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful available in all those 1s and 0s?

Taking digital literacy outside the home

It’s not just in homes that the digital revolution has found a place in young children’s lives. In nurseries and kindergartens, tablets are now used for both playtime and learning experiences.

This has sparked debates worldwide about whether or not it’s damaging to children, especially very young ones. How does it affect kids to be near digital technology, and what’s enough exposure (or too much)? Is it okay for kids to be influenced by the devices both at home and when in care? Will they fall behind if they don’t get digital stimulation in daycare or the school system? How will it affect them in the long run?

As with so many other things, we don’t have definitive answers. What we have are studies that help us understand what happens when kids use tech and what happens when they don’t.

The latter has been around for centuries, so the data needed in this case is one where a modern child has never encountered the digital world. A rare phenomenon nowadays and something that requires a choice and quite an effort from the parents.

It’s so rare outside of tribal communities in Africa and other such places that the only thing I could find about kids living totally tech-free was an article about a mom who moved her 4 kids to a rural part of New Zealand. To perform this task, she had them homeschooled at first, and later found a school that disallows TV and tech for younger kids.

Though I see the idealism in this feat, it’s a hard path to walk in the world we live in. It also raises a lot of questions. What will happen when these children have to use technology when they lack the skill set their peers have trained the past five to ten years to gain? Will they be able to adapt, or will their lives and the way they use the digital world be like it was when the first digital immigrants had to learn what this tech-thingy was?

The mother hoped this sort of childhood would bring them closer to a life not enslaved by tech, and I applaud that. I just can’t help but think that she took it to an extreme when she could have done it in a more wholesome way. You don’t have to isolate yourself and your offspring to have a balanced digital and technical diet.

You can have both.

When Silicon Valley makes choices

In Silicon Valley, many of the high-level executives have chosen to send their kids to Waldorf Schools, where tech is not something that’s used until they are much older — if it’s used at all.

They also restrict the kids’ intake of tech at home, making sure it doesn’t consume their lives. These are the front runners of the digital tech revolution, and they have actively chosen to ease technology into their children’s lives. And I love it!

So maybe you want your child in a daycare with tech as a tool. Great — just make sure they have a plan!

It’s what we all need to do, in my opinion. By taking charge and helping kids take their first steps into their digital lives, we help them by creating a healthy balance; a safe place where the new inputs can be digested slowly and not gulped down in vast amounts. The virtual free-for-all we have been inclined to let our kids have at, creates too many conflicts, failures, and let-downs. Plus, it leaves the adult totally out of the loop, which is why we are experiencing so much cyberbullying. Because if kids are left to fend for themselves and no one has taught them general rules of digital conduct, they will respond like kids always do: They will test and push boundaries until they find them, and they will keep testing them to see if they stick.

As I mentioned in the article Why coding should not be taught as ‘THE Truth,’ it all has to start from the bottom up. It starts at home, with basic repetition, and then outside of the home where life really happens.

Tech isn’t a need for the youngest

Children under the age of 3 don’t need tech. They can have it like they can have all sorts of other toys and stimuli, but it’s our need that decides if they should use it. If we give it to them, they will crave it, and if you use it, they will want to be a part of the fun. Nobody wants to be left out of the fun!

So maybe you want your child in a daycare with tech as a tool. Great — just make sure they have a plan for it! You might also want to choose a daycare without tech, and that’s your choice. Just make a choice. We need to take charge of our children’s digital upbringing by teaching them the digital literacy they deserve to know. They are not natural digital users. Digital literacy is an ability that we teach them, not a genetic predisposition.

And that is why I’m claiming that the term Digital Natives should be banned from every present discussion or debate about kids and the digital world. Period!

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