Are the Kids All Right? The "Digital Natives"

A recent The Wall Street Journal article, "Learning to Play 'Angry Birds' Before You Can Tie Your Shoes," highlighted the fact that for many children, proficiency with technology is starting at earlier ages, which has required the integration of technology use within traditional guidelines for developmental milestones. In a world that turns with the click of a mouse or the tap of an application, this is a natural progression in child development.

Concern for children has been an issue of parents and child advocates alike since the popularization of Internet use in the mid-1990's. A litany of legislation, lawsuits, Supreme Court cases, task forces, panels and guidelines have framed how we approached "protecting" children in the online space. In a conversation with MySpace's Chief Security Officer Hemu Nigam, he pointed out that all of these past efforts have honed in on only two components of protecting children online: content and contact. The first wave of concern was surrounding the content that children could potentially be exposed to online. The second wave focused upon inappropriate contact, whether it was tackling adults creating false profiles to harm children or stopping websites from collecting unnecessary data from children.

The newest problem has manifested itself most publicly with the recent wave of "cyberbullying," with tragedies demonstrating its consequences. It is time to usher in the third wave, where instead of focusing on the outside influences upon children, attention is put upon their own conduct online. The term "digital native" has created a myth: being a native of anything implies an understanding of cultural norms and practices. A survey of the average child's activity online would quickly prove a lack of understanding that virtual activities may have the same consequences as real world ones. Children are missing an element of socialization when it comes to how children interact with each other and the rest of the world online. Use of the tools of the "social web" are turning out not to be a substitute for real world interactions for children in terms of development.

The adage, "Actions speak louder than words," has almost reached a point of being outdated: Words are the loudest actions with the Internet. They are often times out of your control and, as we know, have a permanency that we have yet to understand in terms of data privacy and security. People are already wondering how information they thought they deleted from a social platform or information they forgot they once provided has had a funny way of coming back to haunt, and in most cases, hinder their futures. With children, there is a fundamental disconnect between how they behave in the online and offline worlds.

One must wonder if this disconnect necessitates the same types of legislative fixes found in past attempts to protect children online or whether this failure to understand the intended, and unintended, consequences of behavior will self-correct with age. Many who are analyzing and creating the frameworks for children online know a world where the Internet was unknown. They understood and adapted their behaviors with offline lessons in mind and have used the Internet accordingly. While our societal behaviors in total have changed the way we interact no doubt, for many, we still remember what it was to operate sans technology on the playground or by the lockers.

The trends emerging for wrestling with this conduct issue range from educative to punitive, perhaps pitting our notions that children must be taught how to behave with our belief that wrongs should not go unpunished. Just this year, legislation and proclamations attacking cyberbullying have begun to emerge. The application of these laws is yet unknown; their utility in serving as a solution to this problem is unlikely considering the issue lies not with knowing behaviors are wrong and doing it anyway, but from ignorance of the tangibility of its consequences and the broadcast power of technology.

Children of the digital revolution they are, natives of culture driven by the digital they are not.