There have been a number of studies looking at young people's use of technology in the home, the latest of which is the Economic amp; Social Research Council funded UK Children Go Online (www.children-go-online.net).
Their second report, of a face-to-face survey of more than 1,000 9 to 19-year-olds, has recently been published. This project is particularly interested in the tension between the two views of young people currently prevalent - are they the techno-savvy digital generation, or a vulnerable group who must be protected from the risks they will encounter online? This tension is as acutely felt in schools as in the home. How do we balance the rich potential that is the vast, yet chaotic wealth of the internet against the risk that young people online will be exposed to inappropriate content, and even more worrying, people that may harm them?
The UK Children Go Online data shows that nearly one third of young people still do not receive lessons on using the internet. Although this means that the majority have had some instruction, 19 per cent report only one or two lessons. Despite the fact that the vast majority of 9 to 19-year-olds use the internet daily or weekly to find information, 40 per cent say they trust most of the information they find and only one in 10 is sceptical about information they find online. Only a third have been taught how to judge the reliability of content, and parents recognise that their children cannot do this. So even though many adults are, and know they are, less expert than their children when it comes to finding their way around the web, they do not have too many illusions about the real extent of their children's expertise.
A recognition of this limit to their expertise - and that going online has significant risks associated with it - may be why the children in the survey are less adventurous than we might imagine, tending to use only a handful of websites regularly - which may also account for the high degree of trust they feel. They also shun strangers online for the most part, preferring to chat with their friends using internet relay chat in much the way their parents might have used the telephone.
It seems to me that the challenge for schools is this: in a society in which households with children are more likely to have computers and internet access, and where young people have significant access to these technologies and use them to support their school work, how do we properly equip them to find, recognise and use the highly valuable resources that are out there, and to do this safely? Moreover, why is it that, as yet, we have not seen the need to do this as a priority?
Angela McFarlane is professor of education and director of learning technology at the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol