Kids will always choose what is trendy and it is cruel to deny them the chance to be cool in school. Facebook is a fad that will pass, and there is no harm done if young people squander their free time poking their friends, and posting inane messages and pictures to each other. The symbiotic merge between man and machine has never been so strong: now our kids jump to the sound of their social network calling, and stroke their tiny cell-phone screens to flip miniature apps back and forth. Geeks have inherited the earth, and now it seems that young people live most of their lives in a virtual plane, far from the distractions of real life, and deeply immersed in a universe of cute little games and endless chatter about celebrities, music and fashion. There are many who point out the very real dangers of gadget addiction. The new i-phones combine the convenience of telephones with the infinite distraction of browser games which are free to play, but come with tempting invitations to spend real money on pixels. It sounds incredible, but Zynga, the company which created many mobile browser games, have generated some $600 million in one year1 selling products such as animals for a virtual farm, or game coins for a virtual business. Even in Cafe World there is no such thing as a free lunch, and this commercialization of free time is becoming endemic, to the detriment of family life and relationships in the real world. More worrying than the loss of hard-earned resources, or the fruitless expenditure
of time and energy, however, is the danger that comes from interaction with unknown entities in cyberspace. Who can say whether the charming tweet from “Joey” is a genuine friendly greeting, or the first step in a grooming process that leads young people into scary situations? Most of the time you won’t even know what kind of conversations with the big bad world your child is having, and this is indeed a worry. The truth is, cell phones and especially the smart and sophisticated i-phones that young people crave, are a window to the whole world and this means dealing with the bad and the good which are both bound to appear. The teenage phase of life is an interlude between the world of education and the world of work. Last month I had a long talk with my niece about the digital footprint that she is now making, consisting of tweets, posts and pics which one day might come back to haunt her when a future employer does a preliminary google on applicants for promotion, for example. As it turned out, however, she was far more knowledgeable about the digital world than I ever hoped she would be. I received an illuminating lecture on phishing and pharming and a withering look when I suggested that people in cyberspace might be up to no good. My niece is a digital native, born in the early 1990s and very attuned to issues of privacy and identity on the internet. So long as we have adequate information and education in place, we should credit our own young people with the sense to work out their own strategies for ensuring personal safety on the streets of the digital world. The latest gadgets reflect the preoccupations of our age. Information is king, and the projection of infinite varieties of identity through various portals is achieved using avatars, roleplays and cryptic internet slang. In the past a young person might have international contacts through pen pals, or school and church based links.