Growing up in the Digital Age (#05 – Cognitive Sensations Exhibition Series)

In the final Cognitive Sensations event, we discussed generations in the digital age with a focus on education, parenting and digital health. We were joined by; Cliff Manning, Head of Digital at ParentZone; Jack Andrews, PhD student in Neuroscience and Mental Health at UCL; and Manolis Mavrikis, Reader in Learning Technologies at UCL Knowledge Lab.

The discussion highlighted a number of misunderstandings and assumptions around the impact of technology, shared by adults, parents, and at times, myself. As often mentioned in these essays, research and information posted online circling the great digital debate is often conflicted, misleading many of its readers through badly presented research and sweeping comments.

From a generational perspective, individuals born before the 1990s have no real cultural context or collective history to inform them around parenting in the digital age. The Children’s Commissioner 2017 Growing Up Digital report states that one third of internet users are under the age of 18 (1). A 2018 report by Ofcom reveals that 99% of 12-15 year olds spend 20.5 hours a week online, and 93% of 8-11 year olds spend around 13.5 hours a week (2). It is no secret that kids spend a great deal of their time online, but what does this mean for parents, and should they be doing anything about it?

This essay will provide some insight into some common misconceptions often made in relation to generations and digital technology.

The Label

First and foremost it is important to stress the unhelpful nature of the label Digital Native. The term was first popularised by Marc Prensky in his 2001 article ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants’, referring to the younger generation of native speakers in the ‘digital language of computers, video games and the internet’ (3). In Prensky’s language, the term suggests that the younger generation have more advanced digital skills than their elders, promoting the popular belief that there is a digital skill gap between generations.

In their paper, Digital natives: where is the evidence? (2009), Ellen Helsper and Rebecca Enyon stress that although a quick Google search of ‘digital native’ provides a vast number of hits (17,400 worldwide), an academic search is light in comparison (4). In their analysis of the validity of this term, they found that breadth of use, experience, self-efficacy, gender and education, are just as important as age in explaining digital skills.

According to their findings, young people; do use the internet more; they have higher levels of internet self-efficacy; and tend to use the internet as a first port of call for information. However, generation alone is not a significant variable in explaining all these activities, and should not be used to indicate skill independently. Enyon and Helsper reflect that:

‘Although young people do use the internet more, our analysis does not support the view that there are unbridgeable differences between those who can be classified as digital natives or digital immigrants based on when they are born…this is important because the term digital native, net generation and other catchy terms are being used widely in public and political debate’ (ibid).

This statement highlights the unhelpful nature of the term, and its widespread use in the media and other forms of communication. Having referred to this phrase in the event description, I am a guilty party involved in spreading these common misconceptions, and have benefitted from the advice shared during the event!

As we discussed this concept, speaker Ian Manning reminded us that digital skills are functional, not developmental. It would benefit society to re-think what they mean by digital native. Being born into an era that popularises technology does not mean that you are better at using it, and we must be careful not to make assumptions based on the fact that the younger generation spend so much time online.  If ‘Digital Native’ is representative of skill, then it should not be age dependent.

The Parent and the Adolescent

So if kids aren’t necessarily more skilled at using technology, why the high level of screen time? Jack Andrews gave a helpful account of the different developmental stages of an adolescent and how this might impact their behaviour and use of digital technology. Between the ages of 10-25 years, he explained how adolescents are particularly influenced by their peers, and put the most value in spending time with their friends. As this period induces significant structural development in the brain, changes in the prefrontal lobe causes them to feel particularly conscious of what others think, and greatly influenced by reward processing.

Smartphones then become an instrument in the process to help adolescents achieve what is important to them. Manning reflects that although their greatest social influences tend to be at school, their online networks offer access to a vast community of peers, easy control over social activity, and the ability to ‘collect friends’.

The decisions that a parent makes around the control and regulation of their child’s digital habits, may have more weight than one would assume. In continuation of our discussion around the social habits of an adolescent, both Andrews and Manning agree strongly that the worst thing a parent can do is isolate their child. Actions such as banning a child’s phone or cutting down their screen time severely will act as a barrier between an adolescent and their friends, and is the same gesture as social exclusion.

During a phone interview with Ellen Helsper, she outlined how different levels of parental mediation of technology, reveal a strong correlation to the skills of the parent themselves (5). Parents with a low digital skill level are less likely to impose restrictive parenting, as their knowledge around risks and online harms are weak. The same is true for parents with a high level of digital skills, as they believe that opportunities online outweigh the potential risks. It is the parents in the middle with an average level of digital skills, who are knowledgeable enough to understand the potential risks online, and use moderation as a key tactic to combat risks. Helsper calls this ‘authoritative parenting’, and although it is successful in limiting a child’s online risks, it also reduces the vast number of opportunities available to them online.

Both Helsper and Manning encourage an inclusive and enabling approach to parenting around technology use, considering the impact of technology from both the positive and negative. Instead of removing a child from technology altogether, parents should take greater interest in the technologies and platforms introduced, and further action in understanding the roots behind online risks, as it is not the device that is the problem, it is the content.

Screen time and mental health

An area of research that is often misrepresented is the relationship between smartphones and mental health. Psychologically, online activity can impact how young people think and behave, and act as both a safe place and symptom for vulnerability. There is a widespread view, shared by many leading digital commentators, that technology has a negative impact on young people’s mental health and wellbeing.

During the event, I explained the rationale behind Jean Twenge, an American psychologist and strong advocate of this perspective, who strongly believes that ‘the more time teens spend looking at their screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression’ (6). Since 2010, she has analysed large national surveys conducted between 1976 – 2016, and argues that the youngest generation (labelled as iGen) are; less likely to go out with their parents and friends; feel more excluded and lonely; are more likely to report feelings of depression; and are more likely to commit suicide (the rates of which have doubled since 2007) (7). According to Twenge, the most significant change between this generation and the previous, is that they have spent their entire adolescent with smartphones, spending more time online using social media.

The general consensus in the discussion, was that Twenge’s research is produced through extremely broad studies, and is tweaked to align with her views. Although the rise of the digital age has been an extremely influential period in society, there are other wider cultural, economic and policy developments that could impact youth wellbeing. Some of the potential influences that we discussed ranged from; huge pressures on support workers, cuts in funding and less NHS workers available to support people; to societal changes in an understanding of mental health, resulting in an increase in diagnosis levels.

Academic research examining the variables at stake in relation to the more negative outcomes of children’s technology use, reveal that the problems go further than the device. In a recent paper, Ellen Helsper and David Shmahel presented evidence that ‘psychologically, vulnerable children with higher levels of digital engagement have the most negative outcomes while the least at risk are non-vulnerable children with high levels of literacy’ (8). This research supports the argument that smartphones associated with negative reports of mental health and wellbeing, should not be the only factor considered. One must take into account the situation a child is in when considering if the device is the problem.

This research sits strongly in line with the event discussion, where we discussed the potential catalysts behind unhealthy relationships with digital devices. Online, children are also able to gain self-help, finding comfort in the big white wall of anonymity in a place where they feel included. Perhaps there isn’t an option for this support in their offline lives, and we should consider how this could be put into place. If a child is spending an unhealthy amount of time online, could it be an intervention to replace or escape from something else?


The debate at hand is not concerned with the amount of time we spend online, it’s about the quality of the time spent, and the potential risks at hand. Although children are the most vulnerable age group online, their devices offer a vast number of opportunities and should not be missed as a result of the fear of the unknown.

Separating the younger generation by terms like ‘digital native’ give the impression that they live in a different world, and should therefore be left to their own devices (excuse the pun). Parents are increasingly taking a step away from monitoring digital activity, and as a result are maximising the risks for their children online. A better approach would be to help children build their knowledge around online risks, and equip them with the necessary skills to avoid negative outcomes online. Parents would benefit from gaining an understanding of the digital applications and content their children enjoy, taking more responsibility themselves for their digital activity.

Another step towards building digital resilience, is to encourage self-regulation and moderation. Developing a tolerance and control over one’s digital habits will benefit the user with the ability to decide when not to use their device, but this is another essay in itself.

To reflect back to the purpose of the event, which was to gain an understanding around how different generations are impacted by technology use, it seems that we should be working together. Misaligned conceptions around generational digital differences, can only further separate generational views of society. If parents and children were to gain a more nuanced perspective around the potential impact of online harms, they could work together in their growth, knowledge and safety in the digital age.



1) Children’s Commissioner (2017) Growing Up Digital: A report of the Growing Up Digital Taskforce. Available Online.

2) Ofcom (2019) Children and parents: Media use and attitudes report. Available online.

3) Prensky, M (2001) Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon. MCB University Press, Vol. 9, No. 5, October 2001. Available online

4) Enyon, R, Helsper, E (2009) Digital natives: where is the evidence? British educational research journal. pp 1-18. Available online.

5) Helsper, E (2019) Interviewed by Warren-Smith, G. 27/06/2019

6) Twenge, J (2017) Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? The Atlantic. September 2017 Issue. Available online.

7) TEDx Talks (2018) iGen: The Smartphone Generation, Jean Twenge. Available online.

8) Helsper, E, Smahel, D (2017) Excessive internet use by young Europeans: psychological vulnerability and digital literacy? Information, Communication & Society. DOI: Available Online

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