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

Senior reporter

Young people’s confidence with technology is a great chance to get them interested in engineering, but we shouldn’t mistake it for true understanding.

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.