Last week, I wrote a column arguing that if we're so worried about the amount of time kids spend in front of their screens, perhaps we adults need to adjust our own behaviour.

In response to the piece, a CBC commenter asked: "Why is it we don't want our kids addicted to technology?"

"General labourer jobs will decline by 70 per cent over the next decade," he noted. "Computer programmers, autonomous designers, laboratory technicians, internet security and anti-cyber crime investigator positions will increase 1,000 per cent over the next decade."

The point he was making — and it's one we hear over and over again — is that if so many of our jobs will soon be replaced by robots, isn't it a good thing that kids are glued to their devices? We're going to need people to service those robots, after all.


For some, preparing for a life among machines predicates that we should spend as much of our time immersed in technology as we can. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

Indeed, Canada's Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship predicts that up to 70 per cent of jobs in sectors of high risk for elimination, such as manufacturing and transportation, will be taken over by automation over the next 10 or 20 years. Advanced robotics are also poised to change the nature of work in industries ranging from healthcare to education, meaning there is no industry "safe" from the coming wave of intelligent machines.

The question of how we will adapt is a matter of debate. For some, preparing for a life among machines predicates that we should spend as much of our time immersed in technology as we can.

But that logic is flawed for one simple reason: being addicted to technology is not the same thing as being literate in it.

A deeper understanding

Literacy involves critical thinking and contextual awareness. Most people are proficient enough with technology to know how to post photos and status updates on Facebook, but literacy requires an awareness of how the social network operates.

What is the unspoken contract we enter into when we choose to engage with the platform? How does it make money when it's free to use? How do companies make the most of Facebook's news feed algorithm?

The same questions can be asked of other platforms we use every day. Finding what you need through a Google search, for example, is easy; understanding the complexities of the algorithms that give us customized results is not. The latter might earn you a job at a cutting-edge technology company; the former just means you know how to track down information.

That deeper understanding is where we find the distinction between digital skills and true digital literacy. The American military has no problem finding recruits who want to fly drones – after all, hours spent playing video games provide great training for operating these military tools, or so some people think. But there are far fewer potential recruits who are prepared to or capable of designing, programming and understanding them.

That knowledge gap is why many advocates are pushing for programming to be taught as a second language in schools. As media writer Douglas Rushkoff has noted, "When we got language, we didn't just learn how to listen, but how to speak. When we got text, we didn't just learn how to read, but how to write. Now that we have computers, we're learning how to use them — but not how to program them."

Education, he argues, "can't be about teaching kids to use today's software; it must be about teaching kids to make tomorrow's software."

The right skills 

That teaching can mean the difference between technology addiction and technology understanding. We should be encouraging kids to become technologically literate, which won't happen by playing hours of video games or Snapchatting incessantly. Instead, we need to press them to lift the hood and understand how these programs work.

The truth is, we can't keep kids from being enamoured by the allure of technology. But we can make sure we're equipping them with the right skills if they're going to be glued to their devices for hours on end.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.