Kids and computers: No cause for alarm
by Alan Zisman
(c) 1999. First
published in Vancouver Computes,
What do kids want?
In the ?60s, Jim Morrison would suggested they ?want
the world, and
they want it?Now!?
But at the end of the ?90s, some might suggest that
today?s kids have
the world, at least, as much of it as they can find via the World Wide
Web. Toronto author Don Tapscott, for instance, has named today?s kids
the Net Generation?N-Gen for short. His 1998 McGraw-Hill book, Growing
up Digital ?shows how children, empowered by new technology, are taking
the reins from their boomer parents and making inroads into all areas
society, including our education system, the government, and economy?.
In other words, having the World Wide Web, kids want
it all, and with
their increasing technological savvy, are taking it.
But is Tapscott right? Certainly there are a lot of
parents, kids, and computers?the parents who use their school-age
to solve problems with their home-office computers, for instance.
When not writing for Canada Computes publications, I
work with elementary
kids and computers at Vancouver?s Chief Maquinna Elementary School.
Maquinna is a public school ranging from grades 1 to 7, located in
predominantly immigrant East Side. This past school year,
paid for a new computer lab?clearly, the parents, at least, want to
sure that their kids get exposure to computers at school. As a result,
every student in the school gets at least a couple of periods a week in
the computer lab?and I get to work with every one of the students, age
5 through 12.
While not a wealthy neighborhood, most of these kids
have computer at
home. At the start of the year, over 70% of the families had their own
computers, with most of these being connected to the Internet. As the
year progressed, even more families purchased computers. By June, in
class I surveyed, only a single student didn?t have a computer at home!
Despite that, and despite the clichés that
would suggest that
today?s kids are almost born with a mouse in their hands, like adults,
children?s comfort levels with computers varied widely. Some kids
off the year with little experience using computers, a few had no
in learning how. New users had to learn how to start programs. Only a
students could use a keyboard with any skill or accuracy. And many
practice at basic skills like saving and opening files, or copying and
pasting text or pictures.
But most learned those basic skills quickly. Now, even
can find the programs they want to run. Most of the time, even the
1s can find the folder with their name on it, and open their documents.
And with practice, most are becoming more proficient at the keyboard.
no, I don?t anticipate that voice recognition will make keyboarding
obsolete before these kids finish high school).
Still, despite the N-Gen cliché, there are some
(as, of course, was true of every other generation as well).
Take these kids? Internet use. Most of the youngest,
have little interest at all in the Net. Other six year olds can log on,
but only want to go to the same one or two sites? playing games at
or www.foxkids.com. Still others, somewhat older, want to spend all
online time at a few sites that follow up on their TV watching.
or Pokémon are popular.
Older pre-teens have developed an interest in pop
music?and their Internet
browsing follows along, with Spice Girls now less popular than
Boys or Britney Spears. For all these kids, the Net becomes an
of the rest of their lives. (And watch out parents and teachers?you?ll
be asked to foot the bill to print out a never-ending stream of
wrestling, and pop music web pages, draining expensive colour ink
Don?t be afraid to set limits).
Is sex on the Net a problem? I don?t think it?s as
much as many adults
fear. Certainly, it?s out there?type in www.boys.com hoping for a
Boys site, as one of my students did, and watch what you get! But most
elementary-aged children would rather see the BackStreet Boys than a
promising ?Over 5400 XXX Videos?. And if parents and teachers are
with their children?s Internet activities (as they should be!), they?ll
see that most kids are embarrassed when they accidentally find
in places like that. Most kids quickly learn to use their browser?s
But while most kids use the Net to browse to a few
for a large number of kids (about 30-40% of the 9- 12 year olds that I
polled) go a step farther. They use the Net to communicate with their
Most of these kids have their own e-mail addresses?often addresses in
to the ones provided by the family or school?s Internet Service
Web sites like Hotmail or Yahoo Mail are popular with these children,
it gives them access to e-mail that they can get at away from home, and
that isn?t easily viewed by their parents.
Many kids, in fact, have accounts with more than one
of these services,
often collecting a whole string of mail addresses (one reason to take
claiming millions and millions of users with a suspicion). And they use
them regularly?often trading passwords so their friends can also access
their mail. These kids use their mail accounts to swap stories,
songs, and programs?and yes, many of the songs and programs being
around are pirated. And if you have one of these socially-active
make sure to keep your anti-virus software turned on and up to date!
Another test is to ask your children if they?ve heard
of ?ICQ?. Perhaps
10-20% of the junior-high aged kids I asked had?and these were the
of this group. ICQ takes e-mail one step further?when kids exchange one
another?s ICQ ID numbers, they can find out who?s online at a given
and chat with them in real time. Like traditional chat-rooms, but
the dangers of chatting with strangers.
ICQ users are even more active exchangers of pictures,
and other programs. Watch a pre-teen or teenager simultaneously
with three or more friends on the phone (now that this service has
cheap and widespread), and at the same time, using ICQ to type messages
back and forth to a different group of friends, and the image of the
alienated computer nerd will vanish. These kids are comfortable using
telephone and computer technology to give them a rich and involved
Finally, there?s the 5-10% of kids who are involved
with computers as
an end, rather than a means. Like the Grade 4 student (9 years old)
built his own Web page?before the school started teaching this skill.
these kids have found the sites that give them the tools to build their
own pages, and will post them for free. This boy has his own
fan page, complete with counter, and loves to report on what his
total is up to?watch him have his own Internet startup company with a
offering? before he finishes high school (or at this rate, before he
into high school!)
It looks like Don Tapscott is right?by Grade 5, most
kids have taken
to the Internet. And they?ve made it their own?a natural extension of
things: TV, pop music, and chatting with their friends, that they?d be
doing anyway. But adults needn?t feel threatened. Since I started with
a ?60s music quote, I?m going to end with one. This generation doesn?t
echo Jim Morrison?s anger ever so much as the Who?s call??The kids are