One day when I was a pre-kindergarten kid, some relatives were visiting our house. At one point the grownups’ conversation turned to something outside my realms of interest, which at the time consisted of giant robots and dragons, exclusively. I grabbed a video cassette and stuck it into the VCR (probably to watch cartoons about giant dragon-shaped robots).
My aunt saw this and expressed her surprise that I could do it all by myself, but to me, on the difficulty scale it ranked somewhere below that pesky toilet thing my parents kept recommending I learn how to use. My aunt saw me mastering a new, cutting-edge form of technology, but to me, I was just hitting some buttons to start the cartoon I wanted to see.
This sort of thing happens every day, and I’m not talking about me amazing someone with my mental capacity (that only happens about once every 12 months – can’t wait for April!). The wondrous gadgets that change the way adults work, play, and live are just ordinary tools in the eyes of their kids, no more awe-inspiring or intimidating than a refrigerator or pair of scissors. Recently, Twitter users in Japan shared the moments when they realized their children were digital natives, and couldn’t imagine life without the high-tech conveniences their parents will never take for granted.
When the size and price of computers first dipped low enough to make them viable for private use, they were primarily used for business applications. Things have changed, though, and while computers are still used to crunch numbers and calculate data, today their primary use is arguably to store and disseminate information, or in other words, communication.
So while young kids aren’t likely to set up a spreadsheet detailing their sales targets for the upcoming fiscal year, if they want to read a story, listen to a song, or watch a video, they’re more than likely going to do it with a PC, tablet, or smartphone, given that those are the same avenues society as a whole is employing.
▼ In our brave new world, this is how human beings get their giant robot dragon fix.
Multiple Twitter users in Japan said they were surprised at how often they see children young enough to still be pushed around in strollers confidently swiping away at smartphones or tablets. If you’re old enough to remember when only top of the line cell phones came with cameras, this is an amazing development. But from a different perspective, it’s no different from what kids have always done, and for that matter what their brains are programmed to do: implement the means at their disposal to satisfy their curiosity.
For example, watch this video of a three-year-old boy messing around with Google Earth, then ask yourself if the emotion behind it is really all that different from kids spinning a globe, then asking their parents how to read the name of the country where their finger was pointing when the sphere stopped.
The little boy’s expression is a compelling mix of wonder at the information on display and casual acceptance of the process used to procure it. The scale and scope of our planet is thrilling to him, but Google Earth’s framework itself is about as exciting as the binding that holds the pages of a book together.
▼ There are at least two ways in which this isn’t riveting.
In spite of how vital it is, and how much accumulated knowledge went into it, that level of sophistication has always been part of that kid’s world, so he pays it no mind. He’s a digital native.
This demystification is even more pronounced for kids born after a new form of technology is already in the midst of its update cycle. For example, a Twitter user recently overheard the following conversation between two elementary school students while riding the train.
“Did you get an iPhone 4S?”
“No, not yet.”
“I got one.”
“It’s like when I was a kid,” the Twitter user commented, “except that they’re talking about smartphones instead of Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy video games.”
▼ We’re not upgrading until the release of iPhone 8: Journey of the Cursed King.
Another Twitter user mentioned that his son isn’t old enough to form complete sentences, but uses his dad’s iPhone to watch his favorite super hero show. Again, to the parent, this is a way to bypass or surpass the usual method of using a TV. To the kid though, using a smartphone doesn’t feel any more novel or complicated than pointing the remote at the TV and hitting the power button, which is something most kids can figure out before they’ve fully mastered speaking.
As a matter of fact, for digital natives, TV is the more frustratingly arcane medium. One man shared his experience in which his five-year-old daughter asked him to “stop” the TV, showing through her choice of words how much more familiar she is with Internet video streaming than broadcast television.
“I can’t,” he explained. “The TV isn’t the same as YouTube.”
“How come?” his daughter asked, before switching the subject with the speed that only a kid with a single-digit age can. “OK, anyway, I want to watch cats,” she announced, forcing her father to explain, once again, that TV doesn’t work like online video sites, and he couldn’t just search for what his daughter felt like watching right then.
The way kids study and learn is even shifting as they adapt to new forms of technology. One woman, having heard that kids shared notes from class with each other over the Internet, asked a relative of hers who currently attends junior high school if she and her friends did so through email. “Why would we bother actually sending the data to each other when we can just use Dropbox?” came the confused reply.
Technology can be a double-edged sword, though, and while more studious children may use it to compare and contrast their understandings of a subject, less dedicated scholars may use it to skirt taking notes, or even paying attention in class, in the first place. “If they feel sleepy during class,” one user tweeted, “they can just use the audio memo recording function on Evernote,” referring to the note-taking software package.
▼ Not so long ago, the only note-taking application available was finding someone who stayed awake and trading them a bag of Cheetos to let you photocopy their notebook.
But as school life becomes increasingly paperless, kids don’t even have to pass folded up notes to convey a quick message. “Even junior high kids today use Twitter,” noted one individual, making us feel a little old. “It’s like when I got really into Internet chatting when I was their age,” he continued, making us feel even older.
But as kids gain a greater affinity for digital gadgetry, do they lose the ability to intuitively understand less advanced forms of technology? After all, how many of us would know what to do with a car so old it has a hand crank?
▼ I don’t get it. Did your old-timey Prius’ batteries all die, and now you have to recharge them by hand?
“If you put a PC or smartphone in front of kids, they’ll figure out how to use them all by themselves,” began one Twitter user. “But what if you gave them a radio? Would they even play with it? I think digital natives would be shocked to find out you can hear different programs if you turn the dial.
▼ “Hey Mister, I think you need to upgrade the video card on your portable YouTube box. The sound’s fine, though.”
There’s definitely some truth to the hypothesis, but in this case that may be the inevitable price of progress. At the same time, there are amazing benefits to be had from the unprecedented access to information digital natives will be growing up with. “Even middle and high school kids are using Twitter, letting them share ideas freely with a large, diverse group of people,” remarked one user. “It’s an amazing world we live in.”
We couldn’t agree more.