While we struggle to integrate the Net into our lives, our kids don't know an existence without it. There are no adult Internet natives to guide them, and the online habits they are developing today may stick with them for a lifetime.
Like all tools, the Internet is neither good nor bad; it simply has good and bad uses. The Internet can be the ultimate services platform for information access, applications delivery and communications, or it can be relegated to the status of a glorified television. After all, the two media look remarkably similar.
There are a lot of reasons why the Internet is preferable to TV, and why we need to focus on the differences for the sake of our kids.
The Internet is interactive, not a one-way, feed-the-drone transmission. You have to move and think when you use the Internet. It is a conduit for connectivity, not a medium demanding full, receptive attention.
In fact, there is growing evidence that TV, with its mesmerizing one-way engagement, can have serious neurological and metabolic impact--especially on developing brains. Studies show that even moderate TV viewing can impair frontal-lobe development in children, resulting in adults with poor impulse control.
But addiction to Internet games and virtual socializing isn't a whole lot better. As parents and educators, we need to rise above our pre-Internet origins and limitations and make sure the Internet doesn't get fixed in our kids' lives as little more than a substitute TV and playground.
Kid-oriented Internet products to date have focused on entertainment and social networking, while products for parents target safety and control. We need to come up with products that get kids to associate the Internet with learning and growth and productivity and life skills, not just fun.
This challenge is compounded by the need to approach education differently in the 21st century. As Educause Vice President Diana Oblinger points out in "Boomers, Gen-Xers and Millennials: Understanding the New Students," information-age minds don't respond well to traditional teaching methods.
Information today has such a short half-life and is so readily available that "doing" trumps "knowing." There is no point in struggling to absorb a lot of knowledge that is going to be obsolete in six months. The need is not to know, but to produce results with the information easily accessed on that big, virtual disc drive in cyberspace.
As a result, children today learn by trial and error. Think Nintendo, not the logical, rules-based approach we were taught. And if we want them to learn more than games, we need to come up with a new class of products.
For example, consider a product that teaches our kids how to manage money. Our generation was already a very spoiled one, and Americans are notorious for saving less than individuals in virtually any other society. On average, we sock away less than 1 percent of our income annually.
Raised in such a culture, our children are in danger of being even worse. Plus, the virtual nature of the Internet economy makes things like money seem ethereal and even magical.
A money management application for kids could kill two birds with one stone. It would teach kids to make productive use of the Internet, and it would teach them about money and the power of compounding. Kids could learn how to be informed, responsible participants in online commerce, researching the best values for goods and services, paying bills and doing online banking. They would learn that when you buy something online, you have to pay for it. They would come to understand credit--what it is, and how you get it.
As a whole, we parents and educators have adopted a posture of benign neglect about the relationship between our children and the Internet. We approach it much like TV watching, and simply try to prevent our kids from being exposed to adult or otherwise objectionable material. We need to adopt a more proactive mode, so we can guide and nurture the right kind of relationship, and change our kids' understanding and expectations of what the Internet can really do for them.
Habits collectively define character, and habits formed young are particularly tenacious. The Internet is a very seductive medium, and it is important to encourage children to develop the right online attitudes and habits. Only then will the Internet feed their minds, and not just fill a mental void.
There is a huge opportunity to come up with products that elevate the Internet above an entertainment medium and give our kids important skills that will enrich and even define their lives. And there is an even a bigger responsibility to do so.