Are children naturally better with computers than their parents?

Or are they just not scared to get stuck in? Either way, don't expect the gap to close, says Rhodri Marsden

We're often astounded by the ability of children to pick up, use and master the latest technological innovations. You frequently hear stories from parents of how they left a tablet computer lying around and after a couple of hours they came back to find their toddler using it to play games, look at kittens on the internet or open an offshore bank account.

The idea that the younger generation is somehow inherently more adept at using technology is slowly taking hold. In a recent survey by John Lewis, 71 per cent 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. They're not geared specifically towards children and, while it's often stated that kids find technology easy because they "grew up with it", their 30-something parents probably grew up with it, too.

"It's certainly an illusion to assume that kids can do these things intuitively," says Nigel Houghton, managing director of Simplicity Computers. "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, says that children's apparent expertise has little to do with youth. "If they swipe a tablet screen with three fingers, it looks like an intuitive gesture," he says, "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 more time getting to grips with them than time-starved parents.

"It becomes about inclination," says Matt Leeser, head of buying for telecoms and technology at John Lewis. "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," says Houghton, whose company specialises in producing simpler, more straightforward computing interfaces. "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," says Brosnan, "and 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 that parents can be woefully 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," says Leeser.

"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."

The same analogy could be used back at home, post-sale, where it's the parents duty to be clued up enough to supervise their children's use of technology, but kids end up knowing far more than they're given credit for. "If I were a child and my parents asked me which websites I shouldn't be looking at," says Leeser, "I certainly wouldn't have told them – and if they'd asked me how to block those websites, I wouldn't have told them that either."

Ahad Surooprajally, 45, has a nine-year old son, Habeeb, who's already running rings around him. "He has to go to bed at a certain time," he says, "but then he'll log into my Apple TV remotely while I'm watching a film and shut it down… Similarly, I had a friend of mine set up controls on the computer so Habeeb has 30 minutes online time a day – but he made himself an administrator and gave himself two hours a day instead." Habeeb himself finds this screamingly funny, but is coy when asked how he came by the knowledge. "Oh, the internet," he giggles. And do you ever get tips from friends? "To be honest, I don't really need to," he replies.

You may think of Habeeb as a whizz kid who's streets ahead of his peers, but it's likely that his peers are just as clued up, because they've got the time, the inclination and the access to technology in order to get the edge on their parents. If there's a message to come out of this, it's probably a nudge to technophobic parents to devote some time towards getting good advice and to familiarise themselves with new technology – not just to maintain technological order at home, but also because society increasingly demands it.

"The government wants us to be able to do so much online," says Nigel Houghton. "There are 650 services provided by various departments which are moving online – and there are all the incredibly useful things that internet connectivity can help with, such as getting cheaper utility bills."

And, seeing as our offspring probably wouldn't have the patience to help us seek out a new electricity provider, maybe that's a good a place as any to begin striking out on our own.

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