Private Lives: Millennium Bug bites children hardest

Primary school children worry about computers failing precisely because they understand their power.
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The Independent Culture
AS A child my brother used to cry in bed at night about the possibility of those old Seventies despots Pol Pot and Idi Amin coming to England and killing all his family. We could reassure him, with some confidence, that we thought they were both quite preoccupied with other things - and after a while he would move on and start worrying about something else he had seen on John Craven's Newsround.

Now my own son, aged eight and temperamentally rather like his uncle, talks incessantly about the biggest threat to the world as we now know it- the Millennium Bug

"Do you realise that all the traffic lights will stop, so all the cars will crash into each other, and the hospitals won't even work any more? There will be no electricity or heating supplies or water, so everything will be cold and dark. No shops will work, so there will be no food. There will be nothing left, Mum, can you understand that?"

Another of his friends, who is slightly less apocalyptic, is far more concerned with the specific threat of planes falling from the sky, and tells me about the how whole towns will be destroyed on New Year's Eve. He is going to try to make an underground cave for his friends and family. "You can come if you want, too," he says kindly. Yet another child says that he wants to go and stay on a Scottish island and stand on a hill and watch as all systems fail and the lights go out on the mainland.

Primary school teachers say that they have noticed a general feeling of anxiety from schoolchildren, while Sony PlayStation, Sega Megadrive and PC companies report an increase in calls from children specifically concerned with the effect of the Millennium Bug on their machines.

"I think there is a worry that their parents are not doing anything, or simply don't know enough to be able to deal with it, and the kids are trying to get some information for themselves," says a Sony spokesperson. Hamley's toy shop is selling a large, hairy spider-like monster called "The Millennium Bug" which has been a huge success, perhaps because parents are trying to lighten their children up by turning their anxieties into a funny, fluffy toy, or maybe because children are hoping to bring the whole issue to their parents' attention by buying the Bug and placing it on top of the computer at home.

Parents can't soothe away fears of the Millennium Bug in the same way we have been able to dismiss ghosts and monsters, because it is difficult to know what will really happen when the time comes. I have tried to concentrate on the radio programmes that have geeky-voiced computer experts predicting Armageddon - "find a point as far away from a nuclear plant as is humanly possible, buy lots of blankets and stay close to your elderly parents". Try as I may, all I can do is hope that my overdraft may be wiped off all known bank records, and imagine the kind of day when adverse weather conditions cause a welcome chaos and stop everyone from going to school.

Adults must seem like the dull dolts of children's adventure stories who never seem to understand the danger that everyone in the community is in, even after the gang of children have thwarted the loony professor's plan to take over the world. The trouble is that I can't really offer reassurance, but instead mumble something about "experts working on it as we speak". "Working on what? the eight-year-olds all say, wanting to know more, to get the technical details.

These children are of course far more computer-literate than parents like me, who are stuck on a few useless commands on Windows 95 and don't really want to know much more, thank you very much. Children at my son's primary school use computers as soon as they start nursery at the age of three. I had to go back to the PC shop because I was having difficulty controlling the mouse when I was 25.

Cary Cooper, professor of sociology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science, says that children's relationship to the Millennium Bug is particularly interesting because they are the computer generation. "So much of their education and leisure come from the computer. They talk about it and share information and are unfazed by linking up with a classroom in Africa or China on the Net. Computers have been presented to them as this great infallible force that is an integral part of their future.

"I think they overhear adults worrying or joking about the Millennium Bug and it concerns them not only that their parents are offering no solutions, but that the credibility of computers in general is being shaken up."

Even without Blue Peter Specials on the Millennium Bug these primary school children do seem to have a deeper understanding of just how much our society is controlled by computers and just how much we all rely on them. The threat of destabilising this control naturally enough evokes a response that is close to religious hysteria. My children are godless, having been taught even less then I was about religious faith, and so this millennium's flood, fire and pestilence will come not from a divine source, but from the breakdown of the powerful and mysterious force of computers.

On second thoughts, maybe I should reserve a space in that underground bunker for me and my family, just in case.

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