This week Robert Hannigan, former head of GCHQ, the government intelligence agency responsible for digital listening, surprised parents across the country by suggesting that children should spend more time online to "save the country”. He believes parents shouldn’t feel guilty if teenagers spend their summer holidays in front of a screen.
You’d be right to feel at least a small level of unease with this notion. It flies counter to received parental wisdom about encouraging children to explore and better understand the world by scraping their knees and climbing trees.
However, the truth of the matter is that in the past 10 years the world has changed at a much more accelerated rate than at any other point in human history. In the next few years alone, it’s set to change beyond our wildest childhood imaginations, as we usher in the age of driverless cars and “machine learning”. The skills and experience needed in this tech-dominated near-future are going to be hugely different to those needed by previous generations.
There’s clearly a balance to be found, but forcing children to only play outside in "the real world" and keeping them offline isn’t necessarily doing the best thing by them. Finding the equilibrium between learning and play, both on- and offline, is the key to ensuring that young people are equipped to thrive in the future.
As the ways in which we interact with machines evolves, the skills needed to create – rather than just consume – are also changing. The truth is that we can’t predict exactly what hard skills will be needed in the long-term future but the ability to understand and navigate online worlds and information is certainly a crucial part of the picture.
The benefits of gaming
That said, one of the most important aspects of childhood is the development of soft skills – learning through play and exploration as opposed to focusing on specific notions like "success" and "outcomes". Curiosity, creativity and an ability to focus are always going to be needed and it’s fundamentally wrong to think children can’t get this from being online. Rather, time spent online enables different ways of learning and encourages children to be auto-didacts. Even gaming – which is often presented in a negative light – enhances visual attention and fine motor skills.
The growing pressure on parents to keep their kids offline and give them a "pure" childhood is arguably unrealistic and unfair. With sensible parental oversight, the ability to access the world’s information and upskill yourself at the touch of a screen is a gift that we should feel comfortable embracing.
We need the next generation of UK digital natives to become digital leaders – something that will be essential to keeping the UK economy strong, especially post-Brexit.
Time spent online is essential, for people of any age, to get comfortable with using the language of social media and experimenting with the building blocks of coding. Immersion in these environments means young people can truly begin problem-solving within the digital world and gives them the scope to become the digital entrepreneurs of tomorrow. With the right understanding of digital culture, there’s no reason why the next Uber or Airbnb can’t come from this side of the Atlantic.
As Malcolm Gladwell put it, "Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness" – in order to become masters of the digital and online world, there’s a strong argument that it’s in our children’s favour to let them put the hours in.
Bridget Beale is managing director of the British Interactive Media Agency, a trade body representing the digital industry in the UK