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Raising the Digital Generation
Andy Miah   Mar 20, 2013  

Even before my two-year-old son was born, digital technology engulfed his life. We spent money on a 4D ultrasound scan, which gave us a glimpse of him a few weeks before he arrived. We used apps on our mobile phones to monitor my wife’s contractions and, when he eventually did arrive, his first few minutes were captured on a digital camera, and a video monitor ensured we never worried about his safety, nor needed to rush to attend to him when he cried. It even played lullabies to help him sleep.

Today, many of these uses of technology are quite conventional and not necessarily very different from what we did in an analogue world. However, just the other day, I gave Ethan his first digital camera and he started taking photographs. It was an old Minolta 3.1 mega pixel -- retro you might say. He figured it out pretty quickly and had already enjoyed two years of being constantly photographed and filmed. In his life so far, he has probably spent more time watching films of himself and making films with me, or interacting with family members via Skype on our living room television than he has watching television shows.

None of these things were available to my parents or me when I was his age. Technology landmarks in my childhood were getting our first video cassette recorder, going to a video shop to hire our first film, getting a games console, and soda stream. I even remember getting a knight rider themed watch for my 10th birthday, the biggest innovation of which was that its alarm played the soundtrack to the TV program in a singular beep-beep format. We even had a board game at Christmas that used a video as part of a really primitive, but seemingly revolutionary interactive device.

So, my initial thoughts about the future of parenting focus on the dissonance between Ethan's first few years and my own. Ethan can already work an iPad with decent proficiency. He's already got his own camera and even something as simple as taking pictures will be a very different cultural experience for him compared to my own experiences with compact film cameras. Looking back, getting a camera was a really big deal, it marked a kind of maturity, as a young teenage to have one.

What will be Ethan's coming-of-age technological experience? Where will be the spaces of informal technologically-mediated learning during his childhood? At the moment, his nursery is teaching the kids to use a computer mouse, but it is highly unlikely that this interface will survive until the time when he needs to have computer skills for employment.

While wondering about Ethan's experience with technology, I am conscious of how much of what he has done so far results from my own encouragement and willingness to embrace this world, irrespective of the risks it might imply. I am conscious of the fact that putting a camera in front of him three or four times a day may shape his character. He is already quite a performer, but many kids are and have always been at that age.

I know he must also spend time playing pianos, riding bicycles, and reading books, not just playing iPad piano apps, Nintendo Wii simulators, and reading books on Kindle. And he does. Yet, I wonder what is yet to come in terms of my willingness to promote a digital life for him.

I don't subscribe to the view that more life online means less life offline, or that kids who are using digital technology are more likely to lead a sedentary life, be anti-social, or even be more aggressive. I think we've really turned a corner in recent years, where that view of life online no longer has much credibility.

The breadth of Ethan's digital existence is likely to be all encompassing. By the time he is 18, I imagine that he will make no separation between his virtual and physical life. He will exist in a world where augmented reality is layered on top of everything physical.

He will have his own 'big data' set, which seamlessly draws together his cultural and his biological identities, spilling out insights that help him protect against risks and which underpin all of his social transactions. This information will also be utilized for claimed social goods, which will be justified on the basis of broad public goods.

His own children, if he has them, will grow up used to having relationships mediated by -- and even with -- inanimate objects, which will exhibit sentient qualities. He will most likely have to make choices about which health properties to select for his child and this will be a turning point in human society for how we make sense of our role within our broader ecological system.

Instead of being factories of knowledge production, schools will have become cathedrals of creativity and experimentation. Knowledge based recall may have been completely eradicated, as a valued element of learning. Instead, we would defer to the hive mind of the web to answer all these technical questions and accept any moments of dependency that result from relying on this bargain.

His after school clubs will be critical contributors to social and political life, bringing education into the wider cultural sphere and building political agency much earlier on in life. His peer group will be globally located and yet permanently present across his life. He won't misplace his school friends, as I did.

I don't think everything will be easier for him as a child growing up in a post-digital age. If there is one thing we have learned from the digital era, it is that technology may bring as many new burdens as those it solves.

However, I am optimistic that young people will be able to make a bigger contribution to the adult world, as a result of digital transformations. Those boundaries between adult and child collapse -- for better or worse -- within a world of pervasive media. Our main challenge will be to find a way of preserving childhood for future generations. Either that, or we have to gamify parenthoood a little more. Despite having a video monitor for Ethan when he was tiny and despite it helping in especially tiring times -- both for him and us -- one hopes that the technology frees up time to spend on more important things, on quality experiences.

Certainly, a parent who runs to the bedroom to check on their child every time they sound in distress may develop a particular bond that a video monitor might replace. Indeed, it is examples like this that remind us how a careless use of technology could easily replace valued parts of parenting. This is also why we need to use technology reflectively and critically. But, what's new?

Professor Andy Miah, PhD (@andymiah), is Chair in Science Communication & Digital Media, in the School of Environment & Life Sciences, University of Salford, Manchester. He is also Global Director for the Centre for Policy and Emerging Technologies, Fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, USA and Fellow at FACT, the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, UK. He is currently part of a European Commission project called Digital Futures 2050 and of the Ministerial Advisory Group on Digital Participation in the Scottish Government.

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