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Our tech-savvy teens need to know more than social media

The average six-year-old is more capable and confident with communications technology than the average 45-year-old, according to a mildly ridiculous study published this week.

By asking nearly 2,000 adults and 800 children of different ages about their use of the internet, smartphones and technology in general, Ofcom has put forward the view that 14 and 15-year olds are the most tech-savvy age group of them all.

In one sense, the survey is just telling us what we already know. The idea that most teens are more comfortable with gadgets and instant messaging than most of those in middle age is unlikely to surprise anyone. Partly it just reflects the fact that the younger generation has never really known a world without these means of communication.

Teenagers possess an incredible capacity for learning and aren’t required to adapt set patterns of behaviour, unlike their elders, who have seen mobile phones, desktop PCs and email rise to become the dominant means of communication, only for them now to be pushed out by smartphones, tablets and social media.

But the survey also highlights issues in the way many we often think about technology and what we mean by our understanding of it. For one thing, being keen to adopt the latest trend because your friends are using it isn’t the same as being able to make the best use of a range of technologies. Not understanding something isn’t the same as choosing not to use it.

A 14-year-old may make hourly use of a newly popular and easy-to-use messaging app such as SnapChat. But that doesn’t necessarily make them more capable or confident than a 35-year-old who still uses text-messaging as their primary means of communication but can actually use a wider range of more complex software. Or even an 18-year-old who still relies on Facebook.

What’s even more important to realise, however, is that there’s a difference between being happy using technology and actually understanding how it works – and as such what it’s potential uses, limitations and pitfalls are.

A simplified version of the questionnaire on the Ofcom website suggests respondents were asked questions about their experience with, for example, superfast broadband. The top-scoring response is “I use it”, followed by “I know a lot about it but I haven’t used it”.

With this system, a teen that had superfast broadband at home with no understanding of how it actually worked would be deemed more tech-savvy than one who had learned about the science and engineering behind it but whose parents couldn’t afford it. Not to mention the fact that actually using superfast broadband is no more complicated than using a conventional connection.

Young people’s interest in and adeptness at using communications and computing technology is reassuring given the importance it increasingly plays in our society and the need to equip future generations with higher levels of skill to drive the economy forward.

It also creates a great opportunity to get teenagers excited about technology and engineering in a way that could both boost entry into the profession and increase the wider appreciation of its importance.

Efforts like the Raspberry Pi and the new focus on coding in the national curriculum (which actually no longer applies to most secondary schools thanks to the government’s academy policy) are a great way to capitalise on the enthusiasm for technology. But they’ll only work if we realise that getting the most from technology requires more than knowing which buttons to press on a magic box.

You can take the tech-savviness survey for yourself here. The author received a score of 128, making him even smarter than the average 14-year-old. For once.

Readers' comments (8)

  • We have set apprentices on in our business who are great with current technology but had never held a spanner before, how did they decide to become engineers when they had never even adjusted a bike chain. in 2 years of training our apprentice has not asked me 1 engineering question , i retire next july all most young people want to do is play on their phones. if you have got a good one hang on to him.

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  • I get concerned about these sorts of surveys and the impression that they give that computers etc. are the only kind of technology. The teens may know how to press a few buttons to send a text, but this is massively different to understanding the technology or having a broad interest in technology. The average 45 year old (or probably older) will have been brought up with a much broader range and also had a chance of actually understanding it rather than merely operating it.

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  • While agreeing with John, I have to add that at least 90% of the content of the internet is pointless nonsense and being able to access and forward it is not a measure of being 'tech-savvy'. When the teens understand how and why these gadgets work and be able to write software or interface equipment to do something useful, then they may be on the road to being called 'tech-savvy'.

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  • Pleasantly surprised by my 'score' in the OFCOM test: perhaps my 12 year old grand-daughter's tutorials on how to switch-on my phone, let alone send a message on it are starting to bear fruit!

    Principles, not practices? The scientific and technical method: the means of dealing with a problem in ANY and ALL elements of technology, by -if necessary going back to first principles: what do we know for sure, how can we get in easy and understandable and rational steps from what we know to where we need to be/would like to be, keeping the imponderables and unknowns to a minimum and always on the right 'side' of safe operations.

    bear in mind -cost, effect on those and things around, natural similarities, has anyone else done something similar in some other area from which we can learn, small steps, NOT giant leaps....keep it simple.
    BLUETIT: before leaping, understand everything, think it through (geddit)

    Use your knowledge, wisdom first, your intuition and experience and an occasional experience: stand upon the shoulders of the past giants...
    break man's laws as often as you can, but Nature's at your peril

    Mike b

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  • The well worn classic was the video recorder manufacturer who advertised the fact it's so easy that an 8 year old can use it. Err it takes an 8 year old to figure out how to use it.

    I attended a Linux user group meeting a few years ago that was dominated by people in the 25 to 45 age group. One of the speakers announced that kids know how to use computers but very few really know how software and hardware actually works. They can use Facebook and play games but all but the most technically minded would be stumped if they had to install or configure Linux on a PC.

    I replied that there are a handful of exceptions to the rule and even I could program C as a young teenager back in the days of DOS and the Borland Turbo C compiler. There are probably more teenagers who can program computers today than in the early 1990s because the development software is more accessible and affordable even if it is only web programming using scripting languages. However, I am convinced that fewer teenagers today are knowledgeable of and confident working on electrical and mechanical hardware than in the early 1990s.

    One of the biggest errors older people make is assuming that children learn everything (or everything useful and worthwhile) in schools so they blame schools for any shortcomings of the younger generation. The reality is that most technically minded youngsters acquire most of their technical knowledge outside of the school system.

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  • Most people give up on programming because it's too difficult to do even the smallest thing. They're happier being dumb-users.

    All the study says is that computers are easy to use "as any fule kno."

    This study is a measure of how little the people who did it understand humans or creativity.

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  • I am an AS level student and I found Computing very interesting this year, I enhanced my programming skills greatly and really enjoyed it. I'm also in a project called 'Hab's in Space' in which we aim to send a rocket to space using a Raspberry Pi, I deal with the programming aspects. I believe that projects like this and Computing should be encouraged to the younger generation to enhance their 'tech-savvy' skills and the future of engineering.

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  • I wonder sometimes whether through our own successes we have stifled our own curiousity. What I mean by this is that if I were to go back to my grandfathers generation when simply operating a motor vehicle was not enough, you had to have an understanding of mechanics to keep it on the road. Through innovations and improvements we now have vehicles which require little or no mechanical understanding aside from the location of your nearest garage. Computer technology has undertaken the same path and users require little or no knowledge of how a software program works in order to use it. I appreciate and encourage improvement in technology, after all as engineers our profession requires us to improve and invent, but I wonder if by not having to tinker with technology sometimes to make it function properly we loose our own curiosity into finding out and understanding how and why things work.

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