Kids and computers: No cause for alarm

by Alan Zisman (c) 1999. First published in Vancouver Computes, August 1999

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 of 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 clichés about parents, kids, and computers?the parents who use their school-age children 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. Chief Maquinna is a public school ranging from grades 1 to 7, located in Vancouver?s predominantly immigrant East Side. This past school year, parent-fund-raising paid for a new computer lab?clearly, the parents, at least, want to make 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 school year progressed, even more families purchased computers. By June, in one 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 started off the year with little experience using computers, a few had no interest in learning how. New users had to learn how to start programs. Only a few students could use a keyboard with any skill or accuracy. And many needed 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 the youngest can find the programs they want to run. Most of the time, even the grade 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. (And no, I don?t anticipate that voice recognition will make keyboarding skills obsolete before these kids finish high school).

Still, despite the N-Gen cliché, there are some definite sub-groups (as, of course, was true of every other generation as well).

Take these kids? Internet use. Most of the youngest, in particular, 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 Still others, somewhat older, want to spend all their online time at a few sites that follow up on their TV watching. Wrestling 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 BackStreet Boys or Britney Spears. For all these kids, the Net becomes an extension 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 Pokémon, wrestling, and pop music web pages, draining expensive colour ink cartridges. 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 hoping for a BackStreet 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 site promising ?Over 5400 XXX Videos?. And if parents and teachers are involved with their children?s Internet activities (as they should be!), they?ll see that most kids are embarrassed when they accidentally find themselves in places like that. Most kids quickly learn to use their browser?s Back button.

But while most kids use the Net to browse to a few well-worn sites, 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 peers. Most of these kids have their own e-mail addresses?often addresses in addition to the ones provided by the family or school?s Internet Service Provider. Web sites like Hotmail or Yahoo Mail are popular with these children, as 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 statistics 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, pictures, songs, and programs?and yes, many of the songs and programs being spread around are pirated. And if you have one of these socially-active children, 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 cutting-edge 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 moment, and chat with them in real time. Like traditional chat-rooms, but without the dangers of chatting with strangers.

ICQ users are even more active exchangers of pictures, music, games, and other programs. Watch a pre-teen or teenager simultaneously chatting with three or more friends on the phone (now that this service has become 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 lone, alienated computer nerd will vanish. These kids are comfortable using both telephone and computer technology to give them a rich and involved social life.

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) who?s built his own Web page?before the school started teaching this skill. Again, 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 Pokémon fan page, complete with counter, and loves to report on what his visitor total is up to?watch him have his own Internet startup company with a stock offering? before he finishes high school (or at this rate, before he gets 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 the 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 alright.?

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan