Wed, Dec 10, 2008 - Page 4 News List

US expert exposes pros and cons of the digital age

By J. Michael Cole  /  STAFF REPORTER

Before a packed auditorium at the Taipei American School yesterday, John Palfrey, Harvard Law professor and chair of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force discussed the dangers of the digital age, the myths surrounding cyberspace and the opportunities offered by the medium.

Calling it “the greatest change in terms of access to knowledge we’ve ever seen,” Palfrey said about 1 billion people could really be called “digital natives” — people who have access to, and are proficient with, digital media.

Palfrey, whose most recent book Born Digital was described as a “must read for adults trying to make sense of the next generation,” singled out five characteristics of the impact of the digital age on children: identity development (avatars and “second lives”), multitasking, malleability of content, productivity and socializing.

All these possibilities, Palfrey said, have given rise to fears and myths, especially among parents. Research has singled out four main fears: “stranger danger,” bullying, hacking and access to inappropriate content.

While meeting strangers in “real space” after making first contact online presents dangers — especially sexual predation — Palfrey said data showed a drop in incidence, adding that robbers target banks because that is where the money is.

Online bullying, for its part, had seen a “sharp incline,” he said, cautioning that the ease by which digital content can be produced and shared with parents could have led to more frequent reporting of incidents rather than an actual upsurge in cases.

He then turned to what he called the “digital dossier” — the digital record that is written from our birth and through our various activities — and its impact on privacy. Through the information people put on sites like Facebook and YouTube, the digital generation could end up with “digital tattoos” that may prove difficult to get rid of in future, he said.

He said the aggregate effect of this phenomenon had yet to be fully understood.

Palfrey also touched on intellectual property and information overdose before concluding by presenting a flip side to every danger, from empowerment to creativity to information sharing.

In the end, he said, it is down to parents and schools to determine which life skills — human interaction, argument-making, analysis — children should develop. Digital content can be a powerful tool to support those goals, he said.

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