Centre for Internet & Society

They move seamlessly between reality and virtual reality. The digital landscape they inhabit comprises generations — not of family — but of technology such as Web 2.0, 3G, PS4 and iPhone5. Their world has moved beyond their neighbourhood, school and childhood friends to encompass a 500-channel television universe, the global gaming village, the endless internet. These are the children born in the last decade and half — possibly the first generation that has never known a world without hi-tech.

These tweens and teens were born with dial-up internet, learnt to crawl alongside the PC and practiced writing the alphabet on the desktop. To them, a world without keypads, joysticks, digicams, headphones and LCD is unimaginable. For them, the Dark Ages are the time when television was black and white.

Nishant Shah, director of research at the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, says, "We are living with digital natives — populations that do not know the ins and outs of analogue technologies but they do often instinctively take to the world of digital and internet technologies. They view the world differently, connect with each other in unprecedented fashions and often question the authority structures developed by analogue technologies."

But no one is born into or with technology, Shah points out, and it's still the older generation that is shaping the new technologies.

Even so Indian childhood in 2010 is markedly different from ever before, he says, in that "the younger generations growing up with digital and internet technologies are using them for things that were not integral to the technologies. For example, Facebook was only meant to be a social networking site. Twitter was merely a microblogging platform. And yet, we now see the young users using these spaces for political participation, social transformation and mobilization of resources."

A survey of 14,000 children aged between 12 and 18 in 12 Indian cities by Tata Consultancy Services last year found that 63% of urban students spend an hour online daily; more than 80% have access to mobile phones and one in four have laptops. They do their homework and assignments online, access report cards, chat, blog, game, download, SMS and send photos via Bluetooth. The internet is becoming friend, philosopher and guide for the 'screenagers', supplying them with endless friendship requests, enlisting them for social causes and sometimes offering emotional solace.

Delhi student Manil Chhabra, 13, who swears by his mobile, desktop and PS2, supports many causes on Facebook, including the welfare of street dogs and gay rights. He also bonds with friends online. "My mother gets angry that I 'waste' too much time on the cell phone and online but I do try to make family time. It is not like I don't want to go out with my parents anymore. But I have a busy schedule and have free time only on Sundays. I would rather spend it with friends than my parents who I meet every day."

That said, this doesn't always translate into 'real' friendship of the physical sort. Mumbai businessman Anoop Sharma says of his 14-year-old daughter Aruhi, "My daughter has friends she chats with on Facebook but does not even say 'hi' to when she meets them!"

Admittedly, many young Indians today limit their friendships to the slightly antiseptic interaction possible on the Net. In Mumbai, Amara Mustan, 10, is constantly busy with his iPhone, an iPod with a "state-of-the-art" docking station and a Macbook. She says, "I don't think I have the time to be in touch with any of my friends except on Facebook."

Does this change social interaction? Clinical psychologist and student counsellor Dr Etishree Bhati agrees that the way children now use technology redefines the way they judge themselves and interact with everyone else. "Earlier, children turned to parents and siblings for emotional support. Today, they are checking up personality, IQ and other tests online themselves. Coming to me is the last option. Sometimes, they even crosscheck whether what I tell them tallies with these test results," says Bhati.

So yes, children in 2010 are more knowledgeable and aware. The downside is the "superiority complex and stress" says Bhati wryly.

For urban children then, if both parents are at work, the school day ends with returning to an empty home and the 'human' contact of the internet. Manil's mother, Simar Chhabra, says she is sad to note that today's children "do not understand and realize the joy of solitude. My son has absolutely no time for himself. Even when he is in bed, he is messaging till the time he falls asleep. They are disconnected from themselves and with their families."

Bhati says the impact of increasing exposure to technology is yet to be understood. "Cognitive learning can get affected. Some schools have barred students from joining Facebook. But what do you do when teachers are themselves interacting with the whole class on Facebook?"

As children routinely Google for answers to class quizzes, skipping books and encyclopaedias altogether, scientists worry that they are in danger of developing 'magpie minds' — flitting between web pages and losing the ability to analyze.

Is technology at fault? No, says Nishant Shah. "Technology in itself cannot be good or bad. It is we, the users, who make the decisions on our usage of it and what we can do with it. Children as young as two are also getting introduced to books. Is exposure to books at much younger ages necessarily bad?"

Shah believes that young users of technology are exactly like the generations that went before — only different. "Each generation has used the technologies that they are most familiar with, in order to bring about change."

He believes that the era of individualism seems to be ending and the future lies in networks and how we work, live and play within networked societies.

Is the 'twitch speed' or the rate at which networked children adapt to newer technologies the number every parent and school teacher needs to know? Keeping pace may be the only way to stay connected with the networked generation.

Read the news in the Times of India

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