A couple of hours ago, I finished putting my four-year-old to bed. Like most kids of her age, she likes to prolong bedtime as long as possible, knowing Daddy’s a bit of a soft touch. So, after several stories and songs, she starts with the questions. Tonight’s opening gambit was: “Daddy, what does a mosquito look like?” (She’d earlier heard me say I was bitten by one the other night.) I tell her it’s a bit like a fly, only with a smaller body, longer legs and a needle for a mouth, which it uses to suck your blood. “Can I see a picture of one on your phone?” I whip out my iPhone and call up a picture of a mosquito on Google Images. “How do they bite you?” she asks.
“Would you like to see a video of a mosquito biting someone?” She squeals an excited “yes”. I pop up the YouTube app and search for ‘mosquito biting’. Sure enough, I find a video of a mosquito perched on someone’s finger biting them and then flying off. I show her, pointing out what’s happening in lurid detail and explaining in a toddler-friendly way why they do it, how you can repel them and how you can treat their bites. The Q&A continues for ten minutes or so, with me able to answer all her questions instantly with real-time multimedia accompaniment. We touch on malaria in Africa, mosquito nets, antihistamine and immunisation, at which point – curiosity satisfied for the night – she settles down.
I don’t mind being suckered into prolonging bedtime for a few minutes when she is clearly not only learning things, but more importantly learning *how* to learn things, in a way that’s both accessible and fun. She knows the difference between Google, Wikipedia and YouTube, and which on-screen icons to press to call them up, even though she cannot yet read or write. She knows I can show her a map of anywhere, instantly, and ‘fly’ over the satellite-photographed terrain of Google Earth. She knows she can look at her friends’ houses on Google Streetview and deftly navigates the 3D scenes on the phone’s touchscreen. In a few years, she will learn that she can learn even more by connecting to people all over the world on social networks such as Twitter.
Our night-time discussions over the weeks have ranged from art to astrophysics, animals to animation, geography to geopolitics, biology to ballet. She knows there’s a device in Daddy’s pocket that can show her almost anything she imagines and help satisfy any curiosity. It encourages her to ask more questions and to learn even more. Yes, she also knows she can watch ‘Charlie and Lola’ and other CBeebies favourites on BBC iPlayer, or play Disney Flying Fairies. Often I let her. Entertainment and play are equally important to a child’s mental, physical and social development as education – and, indeed, they are not mutually exclusive. But TV and computer games take their natural place among the myriad playtime diversions of painting, Play-Doh, make-believe, music, dancing, toys and rough-and-tumble with her 23-month-old brother (who, incidentally, is also able to manipulate my iPhone fairly deftly – his current favourite apps are Dice, Snozzle, MooBox and Brian Eno’s visual music generator Bloom).
There are those who think introducing such young children to computers, the Internet and mobile phones is horrific, that it somehow ‘spoils’ them, that the ‘instant gratification’ enabled by new technology is a curse of our modern age, that we are bringing up a generation of helpless, tech-fixated drones. They are mistaken. With appropriate parental guidance, the web in your pocket is your kids’ gateway to all of the world’s knowledge, achievement, creativity, aspiration and inspiration.
Will those who grow up with this technology take it for granted? Of course. We, on the other hand, should not. Because – as long as we steer children in a way that stimulates both their curiosity and confidence – today’s technology can help bring about a future where human beings are not only better informed, but better equipped to meet the huge social and environmental challenges facing the planet.
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As a footnote, when I read earlier today that the UK Government had backtracked on proposals to teach social networking in the classroom following an outcry from the technologically illiterate and tabloid tub-thumpers, it saddened me. For without proper education and guidance, the potential of new technologies to enrich people’s lives will be realised only by the few, not the many. And *not* giving people the skills to find things out for themselves is far more likely to result in the kind of drone-like, socially disengaged population that the ill-informed Luddites rail against so passionately.