Born to be wired

Parents need to educate themselves on the positive aspects of technology to help their children adapt to a world changing at a dizzying speed, writes Zainab Mahmood-Ahmad

Born to be wired
Checking out the weather, traffic updates and emails on your bathroom mirror, televisions that respond to your voice and hand gestures, spoons and forks that tell you to take smaller bites, chew your food and stop before you overeat; these are the kind of things that could become commonplace in the lives of Generation Z. That refers to children born after 1995 – the generation that will have been born in to a ‘connected’ world.

The Reading Room project in Shah Rasool Colony Karachi attempts to acquaint children with technology
The Reading Room project in Shah Rasool Colony Karachi attempts to acquaint children with technology

Some weeks ago at a family luncheon I saw my nephew Akbar who had just turned one, casually flicking his thumb across my iPod screen as if it were the most natural thing for him to do. On the same afternoon whilst rummaging through my store-room I answered incessant questions from my 5 year old about some of the curiosities stashed away on dusty shelves. Her observation regarding a piece of electronic equipment genuinely floored me, “Mama what kind of toaster is this”, she queried whilst pointing at a VCR. Needless to say the stark reality is that this generation is growing up at a time which has seen the fastest pace in technological advancement than ever before. So the question we posed to countless parents was this, “retract or adapt?”

Maham, a mother of 3 remembers how her kids began with Baby Einstein DVDS when they were just babies, learning about classical music, great artists and exploring the planet which opened up a whole new world of inquiry for them. “Each of my kids use technology differently on a daily basis, for instance my 13-year-old daughter listens to her music on the iPod along with conducting research for school. Most recently, for example, she put in a lot of effort in designing an e-card for her best friend with 13 pictures and 13 songs to celebrate her birthday and handed it to her on a USB”. Many might grimace at the idea, preferring the romance of hand-made cards or Hallmark greetings, but most parents are realising the reality of where the world is headed. Sania recently relocated to Karachi from abroad and is all in favour of technology being used responsibly in all aspects of life. “My daughters are allowed free access to the iPad, Nintendo DS and PlayStation all of which are in the house as my husband is an avid user of all things technology. The good thing is because we don’t restrict her time on them she’s not reaching out for them all the time. I feel the more impractical boundaries you set the more these things become attractive to the kids. This way she knows she can have access whenever she wants, so she chooses sensibly even at such a young age”.

[quote]In light of her dyslexia my daughter can work better on a laptop[/quote]

Hema in London, a work-from-home mother of two girls under the age of 5, isn’t so free spirited and still credits old-fashioned learning. “They can learn by absorbing from their surroundings not just from games and apps, but having said that it’s sometimes convenient to hand them my phone when in restaurants or cars to keep them busy, so that’s helpful. Nonetheless I restrict their time on these devices to weekends”. Maham on the other hand feels that everything will be a click away in the near future so there’s no harm in immersing ourselves in the virtual world responsibly. “My kids are not obsessed with updating statuses on Facebook, instead they go online for research, making power point presentations, typing out homework which is especially helpful as in light of her dyslexia my daughter can work better on a laptop. All three of them also enjoy their skiing, wrestling and other video games which I see as an outlet for their energy”. Her eldest Anoosheh also finds it much easier and safer to communicate with a close network of friends through BBM.

Toffee TV engages children with conventional storytelling sessions as well as youtube videos and apps
Toffee TV engages children with conventional storytelling sessions as well as youtube videos and apps

Mashall Chaudhri with her Reading Room project has introduced internet based learning to children at Shah Rasool Colony school so they can feel adept at the use of technology just like their more privileged counterparts. “Being on the internet is like winning the information lottery, the possibilities are endless. Through this project we are testing the hypothesis that if we were to expose these children to relevant online information in a controlled environment, there would be a drastic improvement in their literacy. Technology helps them take ownership of their learning, an option which did not exist before when the content they were studying as well as the teachers, were failing them. So essentially this helps them take ownership of their lives”.

At the same time, Rabia Gharib and Talea Zafar the creative minds behind Toffee TV began with posting music videos on their website, moved on to YouTube and then to apps across all platforms. “We realise the power of mobility and receive countless emails from families and teachers locally and abroad thanking us for our nursery rhymes and storytelling videos which strive to make learning Urdu fun”. They conceive and create Urdu (as well as English and Arabic) content which has been non-existent in a market where extremely engaging and child-friendly apps, games and videos for speakers of languages such as Mandarin, English and Spanish are abundant but not for a language that comes in fourth in this list of languages most widely spoken/understood around the world.

[quote]Asian families are twice more likely to be proficient in using and adapting to technology[/quote]

If we take a look at a study titled TechFastForward (TFF) conducted by Ogilvy & Mather in Chicago, some intriguing conclusions come to the surface. It showed that Asian families are twice more likely to be proficient in using and adapting to technology; this demographic is also more likely to be affluent (high earning), highly educated (graduate degrees) as well as be ‘in the know’ about global trends and news. They also see their children’s future in a more positive light and believe that their children are going to be responsible for ‘saving’ the planet.

The Global Classroom Project is based on interaction between students which began with writing letters to penpals and has now progressed to creating films and music, art and stories with people half way across the world
The Global Classroom Project is based on interaction between students which began with writing letters to penpals and has now progressed to creating films and music, art and stories with people half way across the world

Ali, a father of two both under the age of 5 hasn’t held anything back from them, “I only restrict the use of devices during family time or before sleep, otherwise it’s there for them whenever they want. They have learnt a great deal from the apps and games they’ve been playing and yet still enjoy being outdoors and playing with regular toys. Their school also encourages proficient use of technology which is excellent as they learn to use it for much more than just games and doodling. Let me ask you, don’t you think the same kind of resistance existed in ancient Egypt when, say, the kids began to rebel against carving on stones and chose to write on newly invented paper. Anything new is going to throw us off, so maybe it’s us who need to get used to it”.

This study also busted another myth about how digitalisation was ripping families apart and in fact showed that TFF families were even more involved in each other’s lives because they were connected across so many platforms; they also felt safer as parents could track their children’s movements; and most importantly felt more socially aware about their responsibilities even in the online world, where they conducted themselves with more decorum given that the online footprint is such a public one.

Maham agrees and does not have any serious concerns about cyber bullying or misuse of technology, “I am a member of all the online groups my children are on, along with other mothers, so all of us are aware of what they are sharing and posting. Our kids are okay with this and don’t feel it is an intrusion of their privacy, as we have never actually had to crack down or police anything they have said”. The TFF study also showed that despite what many would like to think about the ubiquitous use of technology from smart phones, tablets, ‘intelligent’ homes and cars, complicating our lives they are actually simplifying it. We can actually segment our lives better and maybe that’s what we need to be teaching our kids considering their play, their lives are going to revolve around the Internet of Things (another campaign the Chinese are leading with the majority of research and development in technology being conceived and spearheaded by them).

Ayesha, a mother of three teenagers who are being home-schooled cannot praise the presence of technology and the ease of access enough, “My children are learning so much online, from languages, how to play musical instruments, fun things like designing clothes and cooking or personal grooming, you name it. There’s no excuse for them to limit their creativity and their pursuits now, it’s all out there for the taking”.

Farah Hussain mother of two tweens mentions the idea of earning their time, and even devices, through academic achievement or good behaviour , “As long as they don’t forget how to be outdoorsy or to spend time with friends then there’s no harm in getting them a device on a special occasion, as long as it’s used in moderation. It helps them stay in touch with their father and other family abroad and considering it is the future in terms of everything being online, paying bills, shopping, learning, playing, communication, then it makes complete sense that it should be at their fingertips”. Her children attend The Learning Tree School and are avid users of an online social platform for students, teachers and parents called Edmodo, the first of its kind to be used in Pakistan. Sania also feels it is a great concept as long as it’s easy to use, “I would prefer that I could receive notifications in my email as not all parents will find logging on with a username and password or understanding the class pages easy, but having said that it does seem like a very exciting tool”. Platforms such as these allow teachers to post homework which can also be submitted online, share videos and links, questionnaires, surveys and even monitor progress with test and exam data fed in for each individual child and also encourage positive reinforcement where ‘badges’ are awarded for personal and academic achievement.

Online campaigns such as iEARN, Global Classroom Project and MonsterExchange are based on global interaction between students which began with writing letters to penpals just 10 years ago and now has progressed to creating films and music, art and stories with people half way across the world, thus it seems the Dark Ages of restricting use of technology with complaints of misuse and harmful effects on eyes and social etiquette is a thing of the past, which is not to say its harmful effects don’t exist, only that there are many other ways in which it balances them out.

The reality is, ‘Google it, Facebook that, Tweet this, Viber me and let’s Skype’ are all pretty much part of our everyday life, so wouldn’t it be better to bridge the gap at home, school and work between immigrants (those who have to adopt technology) and the natives (this generation who was born with it).

Betsy Sparrow, assistant professor at Harvard University is among the few to study the effects of technology on the human brain and found that as it has always done, the human mind is evolving with changing needs and stimuli. She mentions an increase in the use of ‘transactive memory’ which has meant relying on family and friends to fill in the gaps of our information in the past, but now extends to the plethora of technology available to us, so in the event we feel we will find the information online, our brains are less likely to retain and recall it on its own. Participants were asked to take a look at a trivia question and find the answer in a folder on the computer and when later asked if they remembered the trivia question and answer, or which folder the solution was saved in, they were more likely to remember the folder!

So it stands to reason that we are just beginning to understand how our bodies and our lives are changing drastically in the face of pervasive technology. Therefore as Kaleem Ahmad a father of a 4-year-old puts it, “At the end of the day we have to train ourselves and these kids to be masters of the technology we use, not slaves to it”.