Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Digital Generation


My friends who have children in their teens try to explain that there is nothing unusual about children wanting to have those bright, shiny technological gadgets. Children are exceptionally good with such magical toys; just look at their speed and ease in acclimating to cell phones or tablet PCs or computers, they remind me.

I don’t doubt their sentiments. I have noticed many a time, with a degree of stupefaction, my own little prodigies taking no time to reconfigure the settings of my cell phone, troubleshoot my network connection problems or restore a stubborn television signal.

Children marvel at such devices and we get to hear about their technological prowess much too often. Any parent with children today can attest to this: I don’t even know how to reboot my system, but here comes my teenager and it does not take him much to solve the problem!

One cannot but help notice the bemused face of the proud parents conveying the instant transition from their technological vulnerability to a sense of empowerment gifted by their young child. And given the cognitive development of children under increasingly wired conditions, such estimations may not be unfounded. I certainly do not need any convincing on this matter, but I do believe the prevailing references to children and technology invariably fall short of what we would truly like our youngsters to do with these wonderful devices.

It is so easy to describe children’s obsession with new technologies as simply their childish appetite for the magical toys. The debate on children and technology, therefore, must go deeper than children’s apparent intuitive technological acumen.  It must take into account not only where they derive technology’s meaning and value from, and what they are actually doing with the devices but also what technology is doing to them.

This is particularly relevant in light of news reports we occasionally hear about technology and addictions. In the US, several incidents in the past few years involved children killing their parents or grandparents, simply because these guardians did not allow them to play video games. In a shocking incident in South Korea, a couple that was away from home to play an online game, starved their baby to death. In China, it was revealed last week that a boy had sold his kidney to buy an iPhone and iPad. In our own country, we get to hear about children being threatened on phone or lured into internet chat rooms. We know little about the effects of gaming in Nepal.

As we become an increasingly tech-savvy society, with half the population armed with mobile phones, an annually doubling internet penetration and over 1.2 million Facebook users (which include many underage children), the psychological and social dimensions of such technology suddenly assume a serious proportion.

We have begun to see examples that sharply bring into focus the personal and social logic of media use in Nepal today, underlying distinctions between wants and needs, between identity and functions and between knowledge forms and their substance.

The market economy has a way of offering innumerable irresistible products. Brands are here to infatuate unsuspecting people, who once hooked on to a gadget, develop an addiction to it, irrespective of its utility value. Want, and not need, becomes the driving force. A colleague explained to me recently that you could tell a person’s wealth or social status (at least get a sense of it) today by the number of cell phones he or she possesses just as the number of cattle people owned in ancient days was indicative of prosperity.

Curiously enough, I come across people who brandish more than one mobile phone more often in smaller districts of the country than in the capital city.

Children get cues from their elders, peers and others around them as well as advertisements in the mass media. The widespread fetish for technology is creating a generation of restive, insatiable and resentful children who want to have every gadget imaginable—from play stations to Asus pads, tablets and iPads, irrespective of their real use and application. For these ‘digital denizens’, whose parents can afford to fulfill their wishes, graduation from one device to another needs be to be in tune with the release of their latest versions. Keeping up is impossible and hence, the feeling of disappointment and wanting is even more.

Without proper parenting, family guidance or social media etiquette, as well as the lack of laws protecting the rights of children as media users, many children have inadvertently fallen into the trap of commercialization and internet abuse. To paraphrase Jean Piaget, the noted Swiss developmental psychologist, more susceptible to advertisements and new media than any other age group, young children continue to act like infants, ‘transforming all objects into an object to be sucked’.

Existing official policies or laws governing the media focus on professionals and the public sphere, with almost no attention paid to children or family spaces. References to media in the child rights acts are limited to offenses like child pornography. On the virtual front, the Information and Technology Policy and Cyber Law (2063) does not mention children at all. Laws or expert guidelines addressing media use and online activities of children do not exist. In the absence of agencies that monitor their gaming habits, TV viewing behaviors or social network activities, we know very little about the consequences of excessive and age-inappropriate media and internet exposure among children.

Widespread social indifference is also apparent. It is not uncommon to come across parents who, unaware or dismissive of the “under-13” policy, boast that their nine-year-old now has a Facebook account. Without a study, we cannot be sure how many Nepali children are experimenting with multiple identities on social networking sites, cycling themselves through different personalities.

As a society, we are encouraging our children to be high-achievers, to be communicative, and to adopt modern technologies irrespective of their influence and consequences. The only motto is—absorb. The sucking instinct mentioned by Piaget is perhaps in our system.

The perverted sense of ‘achievement’ is reflected in cyber crimes like hacking. This reminds me of the story of Shyam Prasad Timilsina from last December. He experimented with his false identity to defame girls on Facebook by posting obscene photos and videos, only to be arrested. A police report last week said around 70 percent cyber crimes in Nepal take place on Facebook. There are many other cases that go unreported and we don’t know how many of these involve children.

Plato warned long ago that books and reading would bring about the downfall of memory and oral tradition. He was largely correct. There is no denying that despite their many advantages, new technologies or media will bring about the decline of human ability to focus, to be patient and comprehend reality, while of course, discouraging writing and reading.

The instant gratification new forms of technology and media offer could eventually hinder the true success of our young generation. The virtual and adopted identity, the battles won in innumerable online games and the endless phone conversations or internet chats will hardly help the young and impressionable generation to deal with their real life. As they grow older, without a supportive environment and real life role models, there is the real danger of many children becoming disillusioned in life.

The need today is not only to teach children to be successful in a realistic way, outside of the virtual and made-up world, but also to dare them to fail in their endeavors so that they learn to take risks and learn from failures as they grow up.

Our government becomes edgy when it comes to political leaders’ photos being misused on social networking sites. But there is a lot more going on that affects young, vulnerable children. Even without infringing upon free speech, the government can help promote a culture of healthy tech habits and media decency. To begin with, it can assist schools and parents develop ‘child media’ policies.

Published in Republica, April 11, 2012