Bewitched, bothered and bewildered

By Anna Melville-James on December 19th, 2011

Once upon an innocent time, babies reached out for a teddy for comfort. My little urbanite is more reliably soothed by swiping on my iPhone and furiously tapping at the numbers until I am locked out and have to restore the damn thing. I don’t remember that being in the NCT manual. And considering she’s already at the level of iPhone competence I was at about six months ago, this is food for thought.

Claudie’s cognitive graduation has been speedy. From poking at the iPad box at six months she has gone on to being able to select apps, turn on the telly and PS3, adjust the washing machine and “make phone calls” at an age I don’t even remember being cognisant. And her grandmother – her grandmother – has bought her the My First Laptop for Christmas. I got My First Record Player at her age. If you think times they are a-changing then you are already behind the curve.

Most mainstream dialogue about technology and the younger generation seems to revolve around limiting it or protecting them from it. The big question is: how do you limit or protect your child from something they are far more equipped to navigate than you?

Claudia is a born “digital native”, while her mother – and I’m flattering myself a bit here to be honest – is more like a digital immigrant. As a member of the pre-1985 generation, I can still remember what life was like before colour TV, mobile phones and computers.

At least I am one, slightly more confident, step ahead of the poor parents who are searching for bestselling guides to “E-Parenting” on Amazon, seeking help to “become a master of the internet, handheld organisers, cell phones, digital cameras, digital recording devices and GPS technology”. I feel for their determination to catch up, but by the time they have mastered all that it will be obsolete anyway.

Traditionally, the generation before has always been the competent one, passing on its knowledge to young, thirsty minds. But the speed and complexity of the digital – and social – revolution over the past 15 years has made a mockery of that. As has the cosy thought that as designated elder I would teach Claudia survival skills, like how to use a mobile phone or Blu-ray player. (Thank God we have moved on; I still can’t programme a VCR. Some things are beyond any generation.) More likely, I will still be floundering around doing the digital equivalent of the Dad Dance at a wedding while teenage Claudia glides effortlessly through worlds I can barely comprehend.

Debates on safety around content, contact and commercialism aside, is all this technological saturation a positive thing for our children? My knee-jerk reaction always says no. But then, I am a sensual Luddite, and believe that humanity is doomed if the only currency we end up with is virtual.

Whether it is inevitable and necessary for them to adapt is probably more pertinent to ask anyway.

Trawl around the internet and the issue of brain plasticity and paediatric neuroscience is a hot topic: on the Daily Mail website, someone called Dr Greenfield is practically writing a novel on the negative impact of the digital world on developing lobes and neural pathways. If you are a real masochist, you can ramp up your reading with alarmist theories of the rise in ADD, autism and other dark prophecies linked to those omnipresent glowing boxes.

Debate rages over how the digital revolution will affect our children’s self-awareness and self-esteem. I worry about my child posting their every movement on Twitter. Add to that the perils of instant gratification, the erosion of privacy and bringing up a human being with the real-time social skills of a peanut to your list of parental guilt possibilities, and you can find yourself becoming unnecessarily militant on the subject of nature versus nurture.

But whether we, as parents, like it or not, exposure to the internet, constant connectivity and, in the chilling near-future, instant communication via hardware-interfacey-gadgetry are inescapable unless you live in the Arctic. Our little ones are hardwired, if you forgive the expression, into fluency with gadgets and the flexibility to grow with new digital technologies far more than Generation Y ever was. Most importantly, they are not afraid of it.

Plus ça change, I suppose. The survival of the techiest has always been the way, whether that was developing the wheel or knowing how to code.

The only things I have to offer now are the spoils of age and experience, though I realise that the more I know, the less I know (or something deeply philosophical like that).And, importantly, the life literacy to help ground my cyberbabe on her travels. I cannot monitor every marketeer that targets her, but I have the confidence to help hersee through the assertion that her identity hinges on the things she buys. I cannot stop her trawling the net to do her homework, but I can make sure she knows how to think critically.

When Claudie was fresh into the world, a friend bought her a baby-gro emblazoned with the words, “The future belongs to me”. At the time, I took at that as a bit of ironic fun. But then, you ignore the truth at your peril, especially when it comes to the digital divide, which is never starker than that moment in which you’re being upstaged by your own one-and-a-half year old.

Beyond that I have to leave it to those great cultural commentators, the CBeebies’ Zingzillas, to sum it up for the tiny techies. “Every bit of me loves technology… pushing all the buttons til the sun goes down,” That’s their theme tune. God save us all.