Digital childhood today, online family tomorrow?

When talking to parents and teachers, a serious issue comes forth more and more often: both parents and teachers display increased problems in understanding children/students and many of them experience an acute feeling of helplessness when confronted with situations that seem inextricable. The little ones seem to be building their own world, inaccessible to their parents and educators and thus the gap between generations becomes deeper and deeper.

An important factor of this change is the Internet. To children that are born in a digital world everything seems natural, but grown-ups (parents and teachers) don't perceive this problem in the same way. In 2001, Mark Prensky coined a major distinction: he talked about digital natives (those who were born or are born with their fingers on the keyboard and who are native speakers of this digital language of computers, video games and the Internet) and digital immigrants. The latter ones, although manage somehow to adapt to this new world, are very similar to geographical immigrants: even if they learn a new language, they always retain their accent and they can never be as fluent as the children born there. More than that, some specialists have even talked about digital aliens (those who never manage to assimilate the language of the digital world).

What happens when children are natives and their parents are immigrants? They don't speak the same language and children have a different perception of the world, they disown their parents' authority (and the authority of many other institutions, including school)! The explanation is simple: the Internet provides an extensive freedom to its user, or at least much more than a parent or an educator could provide. Bugeja (apud Selwyn, 2009) notes that all these could lead to a culture of disrespect between young people and formal institutions (including family and school).

But why is there such a huge difference between natives and immigrants? Well, let's take a look at our children's characterstics (as digital natives) and then, at our own, the parents' (as digital immigrants). Children are exceptionally curious, contrarian, smart, focused, able to adapt, high in self-esteem and have a global orientation. (Tapscott apud Autry Jr. & Berge, 2011). Another researcher (Ann Long, 2005) observed that, unlike digital immigrants, digital natives don't need instructions for use, they just jump straight into a problem and get it done. Natives no longer find a single source of information enough (even if this is the best one); they want to hear more opinions, to take part in a collective learning, they question any result and they are more open to change. And neither parents, nor teachers find this easy to deal with (as they consider themselves the only holders of accurate opinions). Nevertheless, as Mark Prensky observes, natives have little patience for lectures and for logic, step-by-step learning. Conversely, digital immigrants need instructions and consider learning a serious activity, impossible to trifle with.

Might there be two worlds? Some studies already talk about digital childhood. What's next? What's to be done?

It's obvious that parents have to get closer to their children's world, to experiment, to rebuild their childhood through their eyes. Maybe this won't make them natives, but they will surely become well-adapted immigrants. The child will continue to make a new departure while his parent will be a few steps behind, following him. Yet you must make sure this distance will not extend and you will not fall behind. Sooner or later your child will grow to be a parent. When the native himself will be an immigrant, dialogue will remain the only key to this problem. 

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