Digital generation gap, rebel thinking and how FaceTime can be second nature to a 3-year-old


Three kids lying on a sofa, one on a computer and the others on mobile phones
Cover for the book Supporting New Digital Natives: Children's Mental Health and Wellbeing in a Hi-Tech Age

How can we adults, as digital immigrants, help new digital natives with their mental health? That’s part of what we explore in the new book I co-edited – Supporting New Digital Natives: Children’s Mental Health And Wellbeing In A Hi-Tech Age – by profiling 8 innovative and preventative UK-based educational initiatives. One of the case studies is Outspoken Sex Ed.

Of course digital natives – who were born into a culture of computers, video games and the internet – think and learn differently than their digital-immigrant parents.

But who are new digital natives and what antidotes can help them confront the online and real-world pressures they are under?

Here my esteemed co-editors – Dr Michelle Jayman, developmental psychologist and lecturer at the University of Roehampton, and Maddie Ohl, professor of child mental health and wellbeing at the University of West London – discuss the seamlessness of life online and off for new digital natives, how rebel thinking involves listening to kids and how surprising it can be when a 3-year-old uses FaceTime. Meanwhile mental-health expert Dr Pooky Knightsmith, who wrote the Foreword, has the last word and gives us hope…

Photo of Michelle Jayman smiling, with sunglasses on her head

MICHELLE JAYMAN The term digital natives originated in 2001 when writer Mark Prensky identified that the way older students were accessing and learning information was unique.

Even my 2 sons – my eldest is 21 – notice how immersed in technology school-aged children are compared with people in their late teens and early 20s.

It’s all tied in with the pace of change. These big shifts that would have maybe taken 10 or 20 years now happen so quickly.

Photo of Maddie Ohl smiling, in front of books

MADDIE OHL Adults might say in a meeting: “Let’s take this offline” – but children and young people don’t see any difference between online and offline. They’re fluent with the digital world.

My grandchild, who’s coming up to 3, can actually call me on FaceTime. I find that phenomenal. She wants to learn about technology because it’s a key to being accepted by older children, almost a rite of passage.

MICHELLE Young people are comfortable in a digitally saturated world and with not physically meeting up with friends because they’re so connected. That has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

It’s hard for us not to look at it from where we sit. There’s a generational kind of disjuncture. My younger son is happy to be on his own, on his phone, but at his age I was out the whole time with friends, so I think: “You’re missing out.”

MADDIE We need to realise, though, that for young people, the advantages of technology outweigh the drawbacks probably 10 to 1.

MICHELLE Because young people are used to communicating predominantly online, they might not even think they’re being rude if they don’t make eye contact or they mumble. So they’re flying off with technology-enhanced skills, like picking up things and their speed of processing, but there is this gap with softer social skills and the ability to communicate.

We are social beings, and having an arena to practise those traditional skills is shrinking. But maybe we adults are dinosaurs, we’ll just die out and no one will make any eye contact!

Innovative initiatives: (clockwise from above) LifeMosaic app, Girlguiding (annual survey pictured), Breeze Project by Forest School and Outspoken Sex Ed (Sex Ed On The Cards game pictured)

MADDIE As adults we always think: “How can we help young people navigate technology?”

MICHELLE Technology is affecting fundamental things about how children are growing up, such as education, family and social life, making friendships, experiencing play and being outside in nature. However they won’t get competence and skills only by doing things offline – it’s about having a healthy balance online and off, though what is healthy for one sort of child isn’t for another.

Then there is the sort of black hole with a lot of things that we’re just not aware about. It’s terrifying to have no idea of what younger children could be accessing.

Children and young people have a deftness with technology – but they don’t have the emotional maturity, experience or awareness of the potential harms out there that need to be managed.

So it’s hard being in that educatory parental role of managing those risks and making sure that children have mentally healthy lives.

Every child has a right to have a mentally healthy childhood. It’s all about life chances.

Creative case studies: (clockwise from above) Pyramid Club, Schools Counselling Partnership, Lift Off by Red Balloon and Book of Beasties (mental-wellness game pictured)

MADDIE Luckily adults and children have got compensatory skills.

MICHELLE Absolutely. There’s been a fundamental shift in education in terms of “more knowledgeable others”. Traditionally there was a power imbalance, with parents and educators guiding the younger generation. Because, in a hi-tech age, adults are less knowledgeable, there’s been a reversal.

What’s now important is having children and young people be the focus. It’s not us saying in a patronising way: “They just can’t get on without us” or us saying: “This is what’s happening to them” – instead it’s us asking them: “What is your experience?”

That’s rebel thinking. Rebel thinking involves truly listening to children and young people and actively engaging them so they can use technology for their own healthy development.

It’s about adults respecting – and negotiating and having partnerships with – children and young people. It’s about seeing how we can support and guide them but in a different way and on their terms. Even young children need to be able to trust the adults around them and feel they can share and ask about things they’re not comfortable with. But the default, as children get older, is to talk less, and that’s a barrier to getting a conversation going.

So try having informal conversations that are not really about anything – where you both feel you can say anything and ask questions on both sides but it’s not an interrogation – and something might come out of it.

I think my sons can say anything to me, though, because I’ve always encouraged that – but they don’t.

MADDIE Some children will tell you everything, whereas others are more closed off – and it’s not because you raised them differently.

How can parents support their children in terms of technology and mental health? They can listen. We have preconceived ideas about technology and assume that children and young people see it in the same way as we do. They don’t.

We’ve got to listen and see life and problems through their lens rather than trying to make them see it through ours. That’s often the problem and where you get the patronising issue.

MICHELLE It’s about empowering children and young people. If they feel confident and they’re happy in their own skin, they’re more likely to be able to communicate and recognise when things aren’t quite right, when they need to talk, before it becomes more problematic.

We need to learn from this generation of older children – who are going to be the adults and educators – how they see what’s happening and what they, looking back, they can give as sort of wisdom to the next generation coming through.

Photo of Pooky Knightsmith raising her eyebrows and gesturing with her hands

DR POOKY KNIGHTSMITH As a mother of primary-school aged children, during the pandemic I’ve had to come to peace with the idea of days made up almost entirely of screen time. Whether my children are learning maths, doing PE, reading with their cousins or playing dolls with their friends, it’s all done via a screen.

Even pre-pandemic, the need was there to help us understand and navigate tricky waters with the next generation – but now, more than ever, we need help to know what we should do, and how, to help our children to grow, stay safe and thrive.

Maybe, like me, you feel a little lost and unsure, but you hold hope in your heart and you want to help the children and young people you work with or care for to find a way forward.

It’s going to be OK. We’ll make it so.

Cover of the digital natives book again

Dr Michelle Jayman is a founder member of the BERA (British Education Research Association) mental health, wellbeing and education special interest group

Professor Maddie Ohl works with Pyramid Club

Watch Dr Pooky Knightsmith on YouTube

Supporting New Digital Natives: Children’s Mental Health And Wellbeing In A Hi-Tech Age was published by Policy Press in October 2021


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