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The kids are alright: Technology doesn't make them "little criminals"

June 10, 1998
Web posted at: 10:00 AM EDT

by Don Tapscott

(IDG) -- The recent shootings of schoolkids by fellow students have led pundits and journalists to decry the "growing problem of youth crime." Everywhere, you hear the chorus, "What's wrong with kids today?" Stories of youth violence, suburban kids' drug use and parental discipline disasters are everywhere. And when it comes to kids and technology, youths often are portrayed as either little victims or little criminals. When researching Growing Up Digital, I found that many so-called experts believe technology - specifically the Internet and video games - has led to a generation with severe intellectual, social and moral disabilities.

Typical is an article by psychiatrist Theodore Roszak, who writes in the New International, "Used as a teaching device, the Web is an expensive way to distract attention and clutter the mind." His conclusion? Keep technology away from children. And according to author and men's movement standard-bearer Robert Bly, the big problems in the world today are youth, technology (which he claims is "eating the neo-cortex" of children) and youth culture. In The Sibling Society, Bly writes, "Technology has destroyed interrelations in the human community. ... We are living among dispirited and agonized teenagers who can't find any hope."

First, the youth crime wave is a myth. Youth crime has been stable or declining for five years (two decades, if you subtract inner-city drug wars). Sure, severely disturbed children with easy access to arsenals recently have committed unthinkable acts, but they aren't consistent with their generation as a whole.

When it comes to kids and technology, I'll agree there is much to be learned. There are many real dangers that warrant good management on the part of businesspeople, educators, parents and lawmakers.

But my investigation of the Net Generation (kids 1 to 21 years old) indicates that the cynics, technophobes and moralists are dead wrong. The research suggests that everybody should relax. The kids are alright. They are learning, developing and thriving in the digital world.

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For example, most kids who spend time on the 'net aren't taking time away from their homework, hanging out with friends, playing soccer or learning the piano. To date, the main victim of the 'net is television.

And when kids are online rather than tube-bound, they're reading, thinking, analyzing, criticizing and authenticating - composing their thoughts. They need better tools, better access, more services and more freedom to explore.

Kids use computers for activities that go hand-in-hand with our understanding of what constitutes a traditional childhood. They use the technology to play, learn, communicate and form relationships as children always have.

On the other hand, the digital media are creating an environment where those activities are changing dramatically and may, for better or for worse, accelerate child development. I found that development is enhanced in an interactive world. When kids control their media, they develop faster.

To be sure, there are issues to address. Children can become enthralled with their new worlds at the expense of other healthy activities, such as homework. I've found that most kids correct such imbalances themselves, but parents must be vigilant.

What we know for certain is that children without access to the new media will be developmentally disadvantaged.

Tapscott is chairman of the Alliance for Converging Technologies and an authority on the impact of the digital media on business and the economy. He is the author of six books, including the best-sellers Paradigm Shift and The Digital Economy. His most recent book is Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation (McGraw-Hill, 1998).


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