Technology for Kids

I’m 38. I feel I need to get that “out there” up front, as I don’t want you dear readers thinking that I see technology as the enemy of the people because of some dotty connection between age and a preference for quill and ink.

I might not have fully grown up with technology – the internet didn’t come into public consciousness until my teenage years (dial-up, which was horrific); I remember floppy disks; laptops had pathetically small memories and were prohibitively expensive – but it was growing up as I was.

The accessibility of technology, in a sense, came of age around the same time as I did; I was 24 before I had my first laptop, 26 before I had my first Facebook account, and Twitter … well, I do try and understand it, so let’s leave it there. The less said about Instagram the better; who cares what you’ve had for dinner every day this week, especially when it’s artfully arranged from a tin?

Technology isn’t the enemy, apocalyptic films aside. It has shrunk our world and broadened our opportunities. We’ve also been introduced to online trolls, never-ending stupidity, and the underbelly of the dark web where dodgy deals, murky morals, and venality have found a new home.

But our children have never experienced a world without the internet of things. Rotary telephones are a thing of the past; social media is ubiquitous; gaming has taken on a whole new level of complexity. How do we keep our children safe from the dingiest elements of the internet whilst still giving them the freedom to explore, particularly when we as parents never grew up with those things ourselves? We don’t have the experience or the knowledge of the world our children inhabit, and yet we need to guide our children through their own exploration of this brave new world.

My son is eight, and I want him to have normal, everyday experiences. He needs to feel confident with technology, as he’ll be working with it his entire life; with the rate of change that’s driving it forward, he’ll encounter computing power we can’t even imagine right now.

I certainly don’t intend to hold him back; to do so would be churlish of me and unhelpful to him. But I also need to help him understand the power of technology – its limitations and power, its strengths and weaknesses.

There are children in his class at school – he’s eight, let me just remind you – who are regular gamers. They play Fortnite and MMPORGS (massive multi-player online reality games) and shoot-them-ups which couldn’t have existed before quality broadband and computing power came along. Some of these kids play these games for hours upon hours every day. I have no problem with computer games, but I have a problem with kids being introduced to these battle and war games when they’re just children. I also have an issue with children being allowed unrestricted access for as long as they want, entire days passing by.

It can be complicated when you have older siblings in the house, of course; how can you stop younger children from watching what’s going on? It’s impossible and unrealistic; we need to help our kids understand what they’re seeing as much as helping them play responsibly.

Technology is a part of our life, but not the be-all-and-end-all. Perhaps I’m fortunate in that my son isn’t much of a gamer; he has a hand-held Nintendo DS, that came down with him from his foster home, but he’s played it two or three times since he’s lived here. I get the impression that he might be a little bored with a couple of the games, but I deliberately never banned the use of it – it’s on public display in the front room (so that if he does play with it, I know what he’s playing) – and I’ve not set up formal times when he can play it. I’ve explained that I don’t want him playing it all day, and he respects that, but he just never picks it up. Is it because I’ve never made a big thing of it, or is it because he’s not a huge gamer? I don’t know; I’m not going to claim credit where it may not exist, but perhaps it’s a combination of factors.

He’s had conversations about Fortnite at school – many, many conversations, if those he’s had with me are anything to go by – but he seems more interested in the music and the dance moves that are part of the expanded universe than the game itself. We’ve spoken about it, of course, and I’ve been very honest with him; I’ve never played the game, so I’m not talking from a position of experience, but I’ve read about it, watched Youtube clips, and heard from people who have played the game. It’s meant to be age-restricted to people 12 and over, but we all know that can be a suggestion rather than a definitive rule.

He knows my views, that I don’t think those sorts of games are right for him now; he’s eight and I don’t want him to experience those violent games. I’m also aware that microphones on internet-based games allow people to easily pretend to be someone you’re not; how can I guarantee that my son is indeed talking to a peer and not a 43-year-old man living in his mother’s basement called Norbert?

As I type part of this piece, my son’s on the other sofa playing on his kindle. He asked permission first, which I appreciated, and he’s gone onto a game app that we looked at together – a truck racing game where he has to get his vehicle over various obstacles. I’ve not mentioned this piece to him, and this was the first time he has played a game on his kindle for months – usually, he listens to music.

I asked him why he chose to play a game today rather than go onto Youtube, and he just shrugged and said, “I just felt like it, Dad, for a change.” He didn’t seem overly fazed either way; he even asked me if he should come off it because of my question, and of course I said no. I explained why I had asked, and he retorted, “Oh, right, you mean Fortnite? I know a couple of six year olds who play that, Dad. It’s so wrong.”

I agree; I don’t feel entirely comfortable with that, although I wouldn’t necessarily criticise a different family’s make-up – like I’ve already said, having older siblings can make situations difficult to manage … although I wonder how I would tackle it if I were the parent in that situation. Probably not have the consoles at all, I guess – a severe solution, I’ll grant you, but the only way to fit in with my values.

The internet is here to stay. Gaming is here to stay. It would be churlish of anyone to completely deprive our children of such an integral part of our current and future societies. But we need to learn – all of us, together – that technology is a part of our lives, not the entirety of it.

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