Certain old-school publications exist, i firmly believe, to rile up old people and to put them in a constant state of head-shaking and muttering “what is this world coming to?”
So it is with The Globe and Mail, whose Michael Oliveira recently reported on a study by AVG Technologies asking moms about their kids’ traditional and non-traditional skills. The moms were asked whether their kids could use a mouse, play a computer game, ride a bike, tie their shoes, etc. The quasi-alarmist headline by the Globe reads “Canadian kids can navigate a tablet before they can tie their laces: report.” Reading it, i could almost hear thousands of cranky and ill-informed elderly people clutching their failing hearts and dropping dead across the country from shock and outrage.
Similarly, Canada.com went with “Canadian tykes now better at computers than bike-riding, name-writing or shoe-tying.” What’s implied in both of these headlines is that non-traditional skills are supplanting, or becoming more common than traditional skills. Our takeaway here, if you’ll allow me to read between the lines, is that down-home wholesome postwar activities like bike riding and shoe tying, those hallmarks of childhood development we see depicted in Norman Rockwell paintings and mom-targeted teevee ads hawking everything from Kool Aid to Band-Aids, are being phased out in favour of wretched and baseless wastes of time like surfing the Internet.
i had to take a few long, deep breaths before tackling this article, deciding how best to sort out the types of misguided conclusions this study, and its headlines, are designed to elicit.
It’s helpful to evaluate the types of activities the study covered as far as the coordination and effort they require, instead of the Rockwellian emotion they evoke. 78% of the study’s Canadian moms sad that their three- to five-year-olds knew how to use a mouse. Based on my own experience working with children and technology, that number seems quite high. (It’s worth noting that the respondents were not randomly polled and may have been self-selecting, since the survey itself was online and presumably required a mouse to complete.)
Depressingly, only 54% of the Canadian moms polled said their toddlers knew how to turn a computer on and off. That only half of Canadian youngsters could locate and push a single button, which is as difficult as flipping a light switch on and off, is the buried lede that really should have caused shock and outrage in the Globe’s headline: “Half of Canada’s Tykes Don’t Know How to Turn On a Computer!” it should have read, followed by the sound of thousands of forward-thinking child educators seizing their chests and hitting the pavement.
Other non-traditional skills polled included playing a “basic” computer game (76%), navigating a tablet or smartphone (40%), and browsing the web (20%). i’ll loudly call shenanigans on that last stat; the world wide web is inherently built out of text, and three- to five-year-olds are preliterate. i’m not sure what these Canadian moms (whose own level of technological familiarity is never questioned in the study) think their toddlers are actually doing, but i guarantee that it’s not “competently browsing the web.” Dollars to donuts, it’s clicking on YouTube videos or selecting different games from the PBS Kids site. Put the vast majority of four-year-olds in front of Google, and the party’s over.
Contrast these skills with the traditional activities the study profiled: riding a bike (65%), writing your name (56%), memorizing your address (47%) or your mom’s phone number (38%), and that bastion of childhood accomplishment, tying your laces (28%). These abilities are inarguably more challenging than the technological skills in the study. Any parent who’s ever had to teach a kid to ride a bike or tie laces knows how much foot stomping, yelling, and temper tantrum-throwing is involved, to say nothing of the kid’s reactions.
Navigating a smartphone and turning a computer on and off are not advanced or difficult skills. They’re just things we do with technology that didn’t exist a few decades ago.
Tying your shoes is a complex task doubtlessly invented by demonic rope-tying sailors piloting their evil tattered ghost ship through every kid’s childhood, the spectre of failure haunting them from the earliest possible age. We have a technological innovation for that, too. It’s called Velcro, and it’s a technology that’s actually been around since the fabled postwar era, yet there are no alarmist mainstream press headlines that read “More Canadian Children Know How to Use Velcro Than Can Tie Their Laces!” We don’t see that headline, because it’s obvious.
The fact that more kids can mindlessly stab at a tablet designed for mass market, lowest common denominator intelligence, than can navigate the confounding labyrinth of twisted string and bunny ears going around trees and through caves, should not—and does not—come as any surprise. Move along elderly folks, luddites and Chicken Littles. Nothing to see here.