Growing up online: a computerised childhood

14 November 2012

Elizabeth Gould asks if there are enough safety measures to protect children online

Computer technology plays a very minor role in my childhood memories. As a four year old my interaction with a computer consisted of watching my parents sitting in front of a large grey box while they occasionally tapped at buttons. Our computer played such a minor role in family life that we used to keep it in a cupboard and simply drag it out when it was needed. To be completely truthful, I had no idea what a computer actually DID. Contrasting my own personal experiences with the latest Ofcom report which found that 37% of children aged three and four have accessed the internet via laptop, PC or netbook makes me realise that technology has irrevocably altered the landscape of childhood experience. The question is: has it altered childhood for better or worse?

Some have argued that increased access to computer technology amongst young children can be used to improve literacy skills. The ‘Joan Ganz Cooney Center’ was set up to research the impact of digital media upon learning and aims to ‘advance children’s learning in a digital age’. One of the centre’s studies, using an iPod Touch, found that an educational app called ‘Martha Speaks’ improved vocabulary comprehension, letter-identification and rhyming amongst 3-7 year olds. Touch screen technology is becoming more prevalent as a learning tool in primary schools and app providers have pounced on this growing trend. A 2009 study conducted by The Cooney Center revealed that 60% of the 25 top-selling paid applications in the education section of the iTunes App Store target toddlers. This technology has also been harnessed in developing countries where the traditional educational model of teacher-child is not always possible to facilitate and represents an instance where technology enhances childhood development.

However, for many parents there exists a darker side to their children’s relationship with technology. Being technologically savvy does not simply enable a child to use technology for educational purposes. Indeed, once a child enters the murky world of the Internet there is no going back. Parental concerns regarding exposure to inappropriate online material have even trickled into parliament with Conservative MP Claire Perry calling for ‘age-checks’ to be attached to all material. With one study suggesting that one in three children under ten have already seen pornography on the web, Ms Perry argues that ‘British internet service providers should share the responsibility to keep our children safe’. It is clear that drastic safety measures to protect children must be taken in an age where the Internet is playing a huge role in childhood development.

For children aged eight to eleven social networking is perceived to be the main technological threat. Although 83% of eight to eleven- year olds believe they are capable of protecting themselves online, they appear to display little caution towards interacting with strangers on social networking sites. Despite many social networking sites having measures in place to prevent children under thirteen from creating a profile without parental consent, Ofcom reported that 22% of children aged between eight and eleven have a social networking profile. The report also revealed that eight to eleven year olds have an average of 92 ‘friends’ but 12% of these will be people they have never met. When one considers that in 2011, a whopping 12,300 alleged crimes were linked to Facebook with many cases involving children it is little wonder that many are calling for change. Shockingly, despite the obvious dangers posed by social networking sites, it was reported in the Wall Street Journal that Facebook is considering abolishing its abysmally enforced age restrictions to allow children under thirteen to create a profile.

In an age where computer technology is playing an ever increasing role in childhood we ought to be tightening restrictions, not relaxing them. Computer technology represents a powerful resource that can be both enormously valuable and highly dangerous. We must tread carefully.