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Children of the information age
a reversal of roles

Ubiquity, Volume 2002 Issue August, August 1 - August 31, 2002 | BY Edna Aphek 

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Full citation in the ACM Digital Library

Understanding the unique characteristics of the high-tech, digital generation.


Understanding the unique characteristics of the high-tech, digital generation.



New means of information and communication have caused a radical shift in the role and status of children. Who are these "new children" and in what ways do they differ from children of previous generations?

My late mother used to play hopscotch and jump rope during school breaks. She enjoyed playing hide-and-seek with her friends. I grew up playing the same games, as did my daughter and son. Today, my four-year-old grandchild plays with "Comfy," an interactive computer accessory for very young children. A few days ago when she heard her mother saying that she was going to send a letter, my grandchild asked: "by the post office or via e-mail?"

In a beautiful poem, written by Israel's late poet laureate, Yehuda Amichai, the poet says:

I don't know if I'll have a share in the next world,
But I want to have a share in the world of my children
Their nostalgia for the future
And mine for the past
Pass parallel to each other
Never meeting
As if in a huge mistake
Caused by a tunnel engineer


My childhood and my grandchild's childhood will never meet. My daughter's childhood and her daughter's differ substantially.

Who are the children of the Information Age?

The impact of technological inventions, especially those connected with information and communication, are far-reaching on socialization, ways of thinking, and modes of learning. In light of the changes that have taken place, mainly since the second half of the 20th century, one wonders who the new child of the Information Age might be?

There are those such as Neil Postman who think of the youth of the Information Generation as the children of television, computer games and video games [Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood, 1982]. Postman's child is one who lost his childhood but never reached maturity. Postman describes a society in which children and adults watch the same movies and tele-romances (soap operas), listen to the same pop music, and play the same computer games.

The adults in such a society become more and more childish as they try to pursue the youth culture, whereas the children, to whom all the secrets of adulthood are revealed, especially those concerning violence and sex, become, seemingly, mature. Seemingly, because they are mature externally but not emotionally.

Postman believes that adults should gradually unfold the world of adulthood to their young ones. The content, the dosage and the timing should be determined by the adult, or else the very essence of childhood will disappear.

As the differentiating line between the child and adult becomes blurred, concepts that distinguish the adult from the child, such as independence and responsibility, become unclear too. Postman describes a society at risk, living in a sinking world without books, without order; a chaotic meaningless world.

The world depicted by Postman brings to mind another world, described by the Israeli Nobel Prize winner S.Y. Agnon. In his story "IM KNISAT HAYOM" ("At the Outset of the Day," from Twenty One Stories, Ny: Schoken books, 1970] Agnon describes the destruction of the Jewish spiritual world. This destruction is a result of having abandoned the sacred books. A world without books is an empty one. "Wherever I directed my eyes there was emptiness," Agnon writes. Agnon describes a world in which one can't find even fragments of books, and the naked human soul has no garment (made of torn book leaves) to cover itself with.

According to Postman, the world of electronic communication is a world without books and order. This is especially true of the world in which television reigns. Order and values are missing from the kingdom of television.

In his writings Postman describes children who live in a "twilight zone" between illusion and reality. It's a world in which parents, and teachers as well, have lost much of their authority. Children are lost in this land without borders and hierarchy. In such a world the young children seem mature, but in reality they are ever- dependent and rarely grow up. Postman's child resembles Israeli songwriter Ehud Babai's 30-year-old child, the eternal child still living at his parents' home who refuses to take responsibility and grow up.

Another view of the New Child : Don Tapscott and the Net Generation Postman places television at the center of the lives of our children, and blames it for many of the illnesses of today's youngsters. Unlike Postman, Don Tapscott [in Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1998] thinks of the new child as the computer-and-Internet child, very different from the one described by Postman. Tapscott points out that whereas the TV child is passive, computer-and-Internet children are active and creative.

Tapscott's youngsters master technological skills. They love to learn. They are curious, inquisitive, studious and responsible. Tapscott's children might learn in unorthodox ways. These high-tech children don't necessarily study the curricula written by adults. The high-tech children learn differently. They take responsibility over themselves and their learning, are full of initiative, and are willing to give of their knowledge to others. Tapscott's children are caring, outspoken and aspire to improve reality.

There is at least one thing that I believe both Postman and Tapscott would agree on -- children of the Information Age differ substantially from the children of previous generations. The hierarchy and authority that adults once had over children are disappearing. Postman thinks that this change is negative. Tapscott finds it to be positive.

In the book Growing up Digital Tapscott examines "the first generation to be bathed in bits since birth." He believes that "these millions of children are combining demographic muscle and digital mastery to become a force for social transformation." [www.growingupdigital.com] Tapscott claims that because of their access to the digital media these young people learn, work, think, shop and create in ways different from those of their parents. The computer and the Internet are like a playground for these children. For them the Internet is the land of limitless possibilities and opportunities. From different parts of the globe, people and youngsters come to the new land in which sound, music, picture, animation and text are intertwined. In lands of immigration, the young ones are the first to integrate in the new society and to speak its language. Very often they teach their parents and even grandparents the language and customs of the new land. [Roni Aviram, in Ha-Hinuch Bemivhan Hazman, Tel-Aviv: 1997 (in Hebrew)]

Much of the Net population is comprised of youngsters in their teens and early twenties. A survey conducted by Pew in June 2001, reveals that 73 percent of American youth, ages 12-17, are Internet users. [ http://www.pewinternet.org/reports/toc.asp?Report=36] The Internet, according to Tapscott, is the antithesis of the TV kingdom. Tapscott explains that whereas adults control television, children control much of their world on the Net. The N-Geners, as Tapscott calls them, "do not just observe, they participate."

"This makes the Internet fundamentally different from previous communications innovations such as the development of the printing press or the introduction of radio and television. These are hierarchical technologies -- inflexible and centralized. By contrast, the new media is interactive, malleable, and distributed in control. The new media will do what we command of them. And tens of millions of N-Geners around the world are taking over the steering wheel. "

Tapscott characterizes the N-Geners as tolerant, inquisitive and eager to learn. Advanced Network & Services harnessed this inquisitive element and desire to research combined with a willingness to give, to the building of subject-matter-oriented Internet sites. The company initiated a competition, geared to schoolchildren, on Internet site-building. Students have constructed more than 5,000 such sites for students, teachers and Netizens. http://www.thinkquest.org/library/index.html

The N-Geners are a caring and sharing generation. They often create new Internet sites for the common good. Jason Fernandez, 15, from Mumbai in India built such a site. Jason's site gives support to children with learning disabilities and their parents and teachers. The site (in ten languages!) contains thorough and valuable information on various types of learning disabilities.

The N-Geners, so we are told, are direct and outspoken. By being exposed to unlimited information and contrasting ideas, the young Netizens do not hesitate to voice their opinions out loud. Junior Daniel, 16, and Noel Morillo, 15, voice loudly their harsh, hard reality. They are using the Internet to teach the world about the plight of street children in South America. Noel was kicked out of his home when he was seven and soon became a member of the Ias Maras street gang, until he was rescued by the Casa Alienza ngo. The Casa Alienza has an Internet site where the street children can make their voices heard. At this site -- http://www.casa-alianza.org/EN/voices/cartas/managua/francisco.shtml -- one can find letters, dreams and fears of these street children. A poem, "Children of the Dump," describes the cruel life of the street children.

Tapscott claims that the N-Geners are independent thinkers who are critical of commercial manipulations. They strongly believe that much of what they hear on radio or watch on television is manipulated by the big companies, whereas much of what is written and displayed on the Net is created by ordinary people who would like to share their world and knowledge with others. The N-Geners use the Net to express their opinions, independence and their protests against big companies and the controlling establishment.

The new technologies assist us in general, and youngsters in particular, in becoming independent. Many of the professions held in the past solely in the hands of adults, such as printing, publishing, graphic design and others, are now at the tip of the fingers of youngsters and anyone else possessing computer skills and the ability to build Websites.

This new land, the Internet, is a mega-publishing house. Unlike traditional publishing houses where a chosen group of people decides whether a poem, a story, an essay or an article are fit to print, or a work of art fit to display, on the Net such decisions are not made. Everyone, regardless of age, gender or education can publish their work. The children of the Net eagerly upload their ideas and works to the Internet. These independent, active, innovative youngsters are about to change, according to Tapscott, our ways of learning and working and our social structure.

Computer and Internet activities outside the Net

The children of the computer and the Internet are active offline as well. They are willing to give from their vast knowledge in computers to others in face-to-face meetings.

For the first time in history, children have mastered knowledge much needed by adults. Therefore it's only natural to train these "new masters" in imparting with their knowledge and in teaching others. The new era is also an era of role reversal. In 1999, Dorit Bachar, then the computer coordinator at the Bar Lev Junior High in Kfar Sava, initiated a computer trustees education program. One evening a week, students tutor their teachers at computer and Internet skills. In addition to these youngsters being simultaneously learners and teachers, they also serve as information officers during class, assisting teachers in searching for sites most appropriate to the subject matter being taught, and solving computer and Internet problems. These youngsters also serve as a telephone help desk in the afternoon and give computer support to the public via the telephone. In some schools, the computer-and-Internet children tutor other children, both intra-school and inter-school, in the computer and Internet skills.

For the last five years I have been implementing the Intergeneration Program and the New Technologies, a program I initiated. In this program, students ages 10-15 tutor senior citizens at computer and Internet skills and learn from their older students a chapter in the latter's personal history. Together they write a digital version of the story; scan pictures, albums and documents, and search for information on the Net as well as in other sources. In the intergeneration program we preserve whole libraries, treasured in the minds of the elderly, by the means of the new technologies, mostly through the assistance and effort made by the computer-and-Internet children.

Summary and Discussion

Observing the abilities and activities of the computer-and-Internet children, one can't help but realize that the old hierarchical structures of parents-and-children and teachers-and-children have disintegrated. In the new reality dictated in part by the new technologies we can't expect the computer-and-Internet children to adhere anymore to the old rules of time and place. We can't expect them to be satisfied with predetermined content material and subject matter. In this reality many of the concepts we, the adults, and especially the teachers amongst us, grew up on are undergoing a major shift.

The meanings of "difficult," "easy," "first," "important," "unimportant," and "graded learning," are changing. The teacher is accustomed to a certain order, to learning in installments. The teacher's concepts are based on adults' knowledge and ideas as to what is easy and what is difficult to learn . Curricula are built and books written according to these notions. Our N-Geners live, work and perform in a complex, ungraded, multi-age, interactive and dynamic environment. In this environment the youngsters decide for themselves what is easy and what is appropriate. The N-Geners learn and research thoroughly that which they find interesting. They are the decision-makers as to pace, rate, content and the time element involved in the learning process.

Nicholas Negroponte points out that learning via the computer and the Internet is a new type of learning because it involves doing. Negroponte talks about new forms of learning: playing with information, learning through research because of a learner's desire to reveal new things in ways most appropriate to the individual learner.[Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc 1995]

In his book, Flow, Csikszentmihalyi tells us that in order for the individual to build a strong complex ego, one has to invest one's energies and attention in new innovative and challenging goals. "Flow" says Csikszentmihalyi, is "the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at a greater cost, for the sheer sake of doing it." [Csikszentmihalyi, Flow, the Psychology of Optimal Experience: Steps Towards Enhancing the Quality of Life. NY: Harper Perennial, 1991]

The children who tutor others or who build amazing Internet sites act according to the principles of Flow: they are not looking for a reward or for monetary compensation. Their compensation lies in the experience itself. This is the realization of the educational dream; learning and researching out of self-motivation and interest, without being told to. In Power Shift [Alvin Toffler, Powershift Powershift: Knowledge, Wealth, and Violence at the Edge of the 21st Century, Mass Market Paperback , 1991] Toffler foresaw what we are experiencing right now -- that knowledge well kept in the hands of experts will get out of their hands. Toffler spoke also of the weakening of authority and power, of the disintegration of old structures.

The computer and the Internet have revolutionized the balance between the power of the adults and the status of children. The loss of authority on the part of the adults on the one hand and the new power held by the computer-and-Internet children on the other, is ever changing the adult-child relationship in schools and at homes. This reversal of roles and "Power Shift" give us new opportunities.

-- As teachers we are given an opportunity to re-think our pedagogical beliefs and concepts; to reassess the theories we base our work on and whether they are appropriate to the Information Age.

-- We have the new opportunity to take advantage of the unique features of the computer to further develop and create new learning modes appropriate to the developing and changing abilities of the computer-and-Internet children.

-- We have the unique opportunity to re-examine our criteria as to who is "a good learner."

-- We, teachers and parents alike, are given the responsibility, the need and the opportunity to educate these youngsters who have been endowed with new power in such a way that they'll use this new power only for the good.

Professor Edna Aphek (edna@telhi.co.il) is a linguist and educational researcher, who specializes in the introduction of computer literacy with a particular interest in educational and social systems. She has designed and implemented virtual learning environments and partnerships for children and senior citizens http://www.acm.org/ubiquity/views/e_aphek_2.html.

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