PASTIME: Children’s apparent expertise with technology has little to do with youth.
PASTIME: Children’s apparent expertise with technology has little to do with youth.

Most parents call on their kids for tech support

WE'RE often astounded by the ability of children to pick up, use and master the latest technological innovations.

In a recent survey by John Lewis, 71% of parents admitted that they consult their children for technological advice, whether that's help online (setting up social-media profiles) or around the home (operating the TiVo). In other words, while adults are busy putting food on the table, children are becoming our technological overlords.

But how and why is this happening and why do some parents seem resigned to it? After all, modern user interfaces are getting simpler and, at least in theory, are designed for us all to operate.

"It's certainly an illusion to assume that kids can do these things intuitively," Nigel Houghton, managing director of Simplicity Computers, said. "It's more the case that they're not fearful of looking around, and so they eventually work things out."

Dr Mark Brosnan, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Bath and author of the book Technophobia, said that children's apparent expertise had little to do with youth.

"If they swipe a tablet screen with three fingers, it looks like an intuitive gesture," he said. "But it's because they've seen someone do it before. They just have a great immediate experience of potential solutions."

There's a world of difference between the Windows 95 PCs that many adults cut their teeth on and sleek, 21st-century touch-screen devices; the latter are far more geared towards entertainment and communication, so it's unsurprising that children spend far more time getting to grips with them than time-starved parents.

"It becomes about inclination," Matt Leeser, head of buying for telecoms and technology at John Lewis, said. "Whether you're talking about Windows 8 or a smart TV, it's a question of whether one can be bothered to learn how to use it."

But it's also to do with the learning process itself.

"When kids get a device, they talk to their mates, they go through a process of swapping information," Houghton said.. "But when older people see younger people using devices so easily, it provides a sort of deterrent: 'Oh god,' they think, 'I can't do that, I must be stupid'."

It's a conveniently lazy mindset to develop, but it's one that's easily conquerable.

"I've looked at issues related to anxiety and technology," Brosnan said. "Some of the most confident, happy, least anxious users are silver surfers over the age of 65 - largely due to the fact that they're retired, they have some time to spare, and there's no pressure - no one is watching them and evaluating how they're using it."

In other words, a solid relationship with technology seems to be a function of leisure time, something parents are short of.

The resulting technological consultation of children by their parents could just be seen as an amusing reversal of authority within the family unit, but it does throw up a number of questions, both financial and moral.

"We're seeing kids leading a lot of technology purchase decisions for the family based upon the trends that they're following," Leeser said.

"They're not really worrying about internet security, for example, or interoperability. So our role is to offer impartial advice.

"Someone said to me recently that it's like giving the prisoner the key if you let your kids make your technology purchases."

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