The Hubris of Youth: What Ofcom’s Report Really Says About Young People and Digital Media

The Ofcom Communications Market Report caused a stir earlier this month. The Guardian, a British broadsheet, stated that “six-year-olds understand digital technology better than adults.” This isn’t entirely true, it reminds of the quote (wrongly) attributed to Mark Twain:

“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”

I imagine a similar picture plays out across the country today: children wonder why their parents don’t understand Minecraft, why they don’t watch ‘TV’ on YouTube, and why they still send SMS and email!

It’s easy to see how The Guardian reached their conclusion, Ofcom said: “six year olds claim to have the same understanding of communications technology as 45 year olds.” But even this is deceptive. The children weren’t asked if they were more or less tech-savvy than a 45 year old, what they, and all the respondents, did was complete a survey to obtain a ‘Digital Quotient’ score. This wasn’t so much a test, but a series of questions asking respondents how confident they felt about the use of technology. It’s almost like the question was setup to spot misplaced hubris!

Unsurprisingly, children don’t know what they don’t know (I’m reminded of Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns speech) and feel very confident, scoring as highly as most 45 year olds. For the curious you can take a simplified version of the test on the Ofcom website.

I have ten-year-old relative who would consider himself tech savvy, solely based on his ability to find things on the internet, watch and upload videos to YouTube, and build in Minecraft. But he’s also very proficient at downloading viruses and browser toolbar plugins! He can’t be the only one!

Parents understand that technology is complicated, whereas young children don’t. The DQ score is less a measure of competence and more of an indication of confidence.

Today’s children are growing up in a digital walled garden; their digital devices are the appliances (washing machines, and dishwashers) of my youth. I have no idea how my washing machine works, and kids have no idea how their iPads work.

My first computer didn’t have any games, I copied the code from magazines. I tinkered and made things; my computer was a tool box and building something from nothing was fun. Those early experiences are responsible for my career today. But I worry that children growing up with iPads and iPhones will never have the same kind of experiences. Are we making a generation of children who can use technology, but never understand it, like me and my washing machine? And is that even a bad thing? (I think it is!)

I’m worried that current technology, on the whole, isn’t creating an army of tech savvy pre-schoolers, it’s equipping children to be tech-first consumers, or more importantly, overconfident tech-first consumers.

It should be noted that this isn’t meant as a criticism of Ofcom’s report, as what it’s done is highlight the effect of growing up with technology, the digital natives. It’s going to be interesting to see where this trend leads.

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