When teenagers rule the world

Posted on October 15, 1999 
Filed Under Anita, CNET, Features

By Anita Devasahayam

Author Douglas Rushkoff in his book, “Playing the Future: What We Can Learn from Digital Kids”, coined the term “screenager” to describe a child born into a culture mediated by the television and the computer.

He said that children are the natives in a media-rich world where adults are immigrants. Parents and teachers haven’t even begun to understand the language in this new information-saturated environment, while teenagers are hip to the new media and we scorn their savvy at our peril, he argued.

Written in 1995, Rushkoff’s assertions may be even more relevant in today’s Internet-plugged world. The examples are everywhere. A 16-year-old Irish girl invents a new data-encryption technology to rival the RSA encryption algorithm. A 14-year-old South Korean runs a successful MP3 Web site. A 16-year-old American boy gets an internship at a Silicon Valley company.

Companies have begun to spot talent in the young. Governments are accelerating the push of computers into schools, while parents assuage their digital-hungry progenies with brand-new Internet-ready machines. We seem to be banking on them to change the world. The question is: are they ready?

Seventeen-year-old Gerald Tan Chuang Win cannot imagine what his life would be without the Internet. The Penang-born schoolboy, who was first introduced to the Net at age 13, went on to collaborate with fellow teenagers worldwide to create award-winning Web sites and global virtual communities.

“The Internet has given me things that no book, and for that matter, no adult can teach me. It has been a self-exploratory process that only I could walk through myself. It has given me more purpose, more direction in life. It has opened up my world and whispered possibilities that I never considered before, making me believe in my ability to do things, and effect change that I would have otherwise thought I am incapable of,” he said in an email reply.

This year, Tan led his schoolmates at Penang Free School (PFS) to join forces with students in the U.S. and Japan to bag the first prize in the secondary school category in AT&T’s annual Virtual Classroom contest.

“The Internet is not a loser’s hideout for social outcasts and geeks. On the contrary, I think about the many online friendships I’ve formed and how it has helped me grow as a person. I’ve corresponded with people whom I, at first, thought would never meet due to the distance, but finally met in real life. It’s a very special and exciting feeling; it’s meeting a stranger but is also an old friend,” he recounted.

The Net as their playground

The savviest screenagers also seem to have begun to make money from their endeavors.

Among them is Raphael Kang who began MP3 2000, an extensive MP3 resource Web site in mid-1998 as a hobby. Audio solutions provider MusicMatch Inc signed an advertising deal with the enterprising Kang, only to discover later that he was all of 14 years old.

“The techie part of the Web is starting to become a level playing field for teenagers. However, being under 18 is restrictive and makes it hard for us to sign contracts,” said the South Korean boy who juggles schoolwork and manages the site with friends from the U.S., Australia, Canada and Israel.

What is his advice to kids who want to start a business online? “Never make a site or start a business online thinking about money. I got my first small check after a year of three- to four-hour daily work.” Sage words that even some adults should take note of.

School principal Tiong Ting Ming is an advocate for immersing children in the info culture early. Tiong has set up three networked classrooms in his school with 60 PCs, and given all 700 of his students personal email.

This year the radical principal yanked out Biology as a subject from the official school syllabus and replaced it with Information Technology. Better to teach children to dissect software and learn inner workings of networks and PCs than about plants and animals, he figured.

Next year, 120 of his students will be doing IT as an O-level subject and will be sitting for the inaugural exam.

“I embarked on getting the funding, hardware, applications, a new building, network equipment and support seven years ago,” said the resourceful principal whose school, SMJK Dindings, is located in the rural backwaters of the northern state of Perak, near Lumut.

Fringed by coconut trees and palm oil estates, the school boasts its own Apache Web server and offers Web publishing and C and Linux programming to its students.

“Today, my students not only know how to use a computer but can appreciate what it can do for them in a networked environment linked to the world. I am preparing my students for the real working environment of the future,” he said.

It’s teen spirit!

Tiong is not worried about the negative influences of the Net. In fact, he believes that by exposing them to the Web, he will create a breed of people who are critical and alert in dealing with information unlike past generations of students who were merely taught to memorize textbooks.

“You can avoid computers but you cannot avoid information,” said Tiong.

In future, he added, students will access resources on the Net to complete their homework and the teachers’ role is to authenticate if the information presented is factual.

“This will force teachers to get online to verify data to correct students’ work. The technology is driving the school and the old way of doing things is gone, whether we like it or not,” said Tiong.

Over time, technology may obsolete teachers who have a monopoly over education today. “When parents realize they can guide their children to learn through the Web in the safety of their homes, teachers will have a real challenge in hand,” he said.

Yet skeptics question the effect of unmitigated digital flow on malleable young minds. They fear that the Internet will create a generation of anti-social and dysfunctional adults more interested in bomb making and pornography.

Noted author of “Growing Up Digital”, Don Tapscott, has stated that for the majority of teenagers the Internet is a positive experience. From his surveys he discovered that teenagers are not sitting passively–like in front of a TV set– but are interacting, thinking and analyzing information when they are online.

Playing the future

Tan said he makes a conscious effort to seek out only the positive from the Net. “The Net is a stage that facilitates positive and negative things. I have chosen to do positive things on the Internet, therefore the Internet is positive to me.”

But the teenager acknowledged that activities such as chatting online can be addictive and all-consuming. Some even regard their online lives as more important than their real lives. “Real life is always tough and confusing, especially for young people. Online lives are more flexible, convenient and safer. Parents who try to limit a child’s chatting time online will find it very, very tough. These teenagers may have discussed their deepest secrets, or may have gone through challenging periods in life together,” said Tan.

There is also a tendency to be irresponsible for one’s online actions. “There is often little to pay for making mistakes, for crossing lines. Somehow, in our minds, we tend to feel that the people who meet online are less ‘real’, and tend to be less careful and analytical with what we tell others,” he said.

However, Tan qualified that not all talk on the Net by teenagers is bad. The Net has, in fact, proved to be an important platform for teenagers to voice their views on youth concerns and “adult” issues such as world peace and nuclear disarmament.

Tan is part of a global team behind the creation of Nation1, a totally youth-run virtual country that aims to empower young people globally via the Internet. The project was borne out of MIT Media Lab’s Junior Summits, which had selected about 3,000 children between the ages 10 and 16, spanning 139 countries and varied socio-economic levels, to converge online to discuss their dreams, hopes and concerns for the future.

Last November, Tan spoke on behalf of the group when he presented the Declaration of Nation1 from Boston to the United Nation’s General Assembly in New York via a satellite video link.

Tan believed that there is no other better and easier way to bring the collective voices of teenagers together. “No one can stop this, no one should even try to stop this. The youth movement is spreading to kids and teens through the Internet. It can be used to push their agenda. The power of the masses, and the reluctance for youth to remain silent anymore, will be a force for change,” he said.

In Rushkoff’s new introduction of the 1999 edition of “Playing The Future”, released last month, he asked adults to suspend, momentarily, their grown-up function as role models and educators.

“Let’s appreciate the natural adaptive skills demonstrated by kids and look to them for answers to some of our own problems. Kids are our test sample–our advance scouts. They are already the thing that we must become,” he wrote.

Brave advice for a brave new world. The question then is not whether teenagers are ready–but whether we are.

Published in CNET Asia, Oct 15, 1999

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