The cyber family

There is no escaping the impact of technology on our kids. Cyber guru Don Tapscott tells us why we, as parents, should celebrate it

The digital revolution has changed the way we communicate, work and see the world. In his new book, Grown Up Digital, Toronto media consultant Don Tapscott — whom Al Gore describes as “one of the world’s leading cyber gurus” — argues that technology has also changed the very nature of family. Laura Bickle spoke to Tapscott about parenting in the digital age.

Laura Bickle: You classify those born between 1977 and 1997 as the Net Generation. What does that mean?

Don Tapscott: They are the first generation to be surrounded by digital media from birth. They have grown up totally immersed in an interactive, hyperstimulating digital environment. Using the Internet is second nature to them. They are causing a Generation Lap — they are lapping their parents on the information track. I was an authority on model trains when I was 11. Today the 11-year-old is an authority on the digital revolution and it’s changing every institution in society.

LB: What do you see as the misconceptions about the Net Generation?

DT: People argue that digital immersion is hurting brain development and kids are Net addicted; they’re glued to the screen; they’re losing their social skills; they’re overcoddled; and they’ll make lousy employees.

None of this is actually supported by data. I think it’s just a question of fearing what we don’t understand. When I give speeches — these are business audiences typically — at the end of my talk, people come up to me and I would say two-thirds of them don’t want to talk about any technology’s role in business. They come up to me and they say, “Thank you. You’ve helped me understand my kid better.”

Around the world, this generation is flooding into the workplace, marketplace and every niche of society. They are bringing with them their demographic muscle, media smarts, purchasing power and new models of collaborating and parenting, entrepreneurship and political power. They have strong values and care deeply about our planet. In many countries, including the United States, volunteering by young people is at an all-time high. In some countries, we can see this civic involvement morphing into political involvement; witness the critical role the Net Generation played in the election of US President Barack Obama.

 LB: So how are they different from previous generations?

DT: Take multi-tasking. Parents have said to me: “How can my kid be doing homework, while he’s also listening to MP3 files, he’s texting on his phone, he’s got three windows open on the computer — one of them Facebook — and he’s petting the dog? How is this possible?” Well, it turns out they have different brains. There’s a critical period of brain development called adolescence, ages eight to 18. These kids grow up interacting and collaborating, thinking and organizing, scrutinizing, having to remember things, managing information. And that affects the actual wiring, synaptic connections and structure of kids’ brains. So they have better switching abilities and better working active memory. If I’m doing several things at once, I can’t keep track of what the heck is going on, but they can. So this is creating a generation that thinks, works and learns very differently.

LB: What are the challenges of parenting the Net Generation?

DT: Parenting matters more than ever. It’s way more complicated and it requires a new kind of sophistication. The first thing you, as a parent, need to do is use this technology. Sit down with your kids and say, “Hey, this Facebook thing. Show me.”

Rather than viewing the Internet as a source of mistrust and conflict in the family, why not view it as a wonderful medium of communication that can build trust and open things up? For instance, my kids, now 23 and 25, are a huge source of knowledge and insight. Every day I get some kind of communication from one of them about something I might want to look into. And I try to give them whatever wisdom I’ve got that only experience can tell you. So they got me onto Facebook, but I forced them to make sure their privacy settings were effective because I’ve had experiences in my life that show that you need to protect your personal information. Rather than having some big generational divide, there is a wonderful opportunity here. That’s why I call it an open family.

LB: How does an open family work?

DT: You sit down as a family and you decide: What are the values on which we are going to run this family? How is the family going to operate? You design your family. And then when you have choices, like what do we do with blocking software, you apply these values and principles to the choices you make.

And you make deals with one another. So we made a deal with our children. It was a social contract and they had to sign it. There were safety rules — they could never meet someone in person whom they had met on the Internet without ?rst talking to us, and having us there at their ?rst meeting. They could not go to inappropriate places on the Internet. And, in exchange, we would not spy on them or try to block their access to the virtual world. We had another contract for how they would behave with their friends at our cabin on the lake. It included a no-tolerance policy on drug use, no swimming after dark, and all teenage guests doing their share of chores. We trusted one another, and we all kept up our side of the bargain. Of course, as in any family, there were problems and breakdowns. But we worked hard to build that trust by making sure information ?owed freely in our home.

LB: Are filters and blocking software effective ways to keep kids safe on the Internet?

DT: Here’s the effect of trying to put blocking software on the computer of a 13-year-old boy. First of all, it’s stupid because he can hack it. Secondly, it says, “I don’t trust you.” Third, you are denied or can avoid an opportunity to talk about something important with your kid, whether it’s porn and its role in society, or cyberbullying. Fourth, it’s illusory because the computer in the house is one of countless computers that he has access to on any given day. There’s also the one in his pocket, the one in his friend’s home, the one at the community centre and the one at the school.

In my family, I sat down with my son, Alex, and I said, “Listen, pornography is not a good thing. It’s an industry, it exploits women, it hurts people and, for that matter, it teaches unhelpful attitudes about sex. Sex is best with someone you really care about; you’re going to fall in love and you’re going to have sex with somebody, and it will be a totally amazing thing. And don’t let an industry mess that up.” We had a conversation where I gave my views in a full and firm way. He said he agreed with my views, and that was that.

The reality is that we can’t screen out the world from our children. The only way to protect them is for them to be smart and have good values.

 Too young to surf?

The age at which kids should be introduced to computers is a controversial subject. We asked technology author Don Tapscott for his take:

“Some people say to me, my one-year-old knows how to email. When a child is one, she should be learning what a dog feels like and how to sing a song and being hugged by her parents and taken for a walk to see the flowers. Those are the kinds of things that are important. But judiciously introducing the use of the Internet as kids get to be around five years old, that’s a wonderful thing. It helps develop kids’ curiosity, and there’s a world of great stuff out there now for a five-year-old. Now, if your kid is on there for four hours a day, that’s a big problem. So it’s all about common sense and balance.”