Kaveh Wadell writes about the interaction of youngsters and of adults with new technologies.

First some statistics: “older Americans are less engaged with technology than the rest of the population, lagging behind by more than 25 percentage points when it comes to Internet adoption. Middle-aged adults, too, are slower to take up new gadgets: 58 percent of American 50-to-64-year-olds own a smartphone, compared to 86 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds.”

Wadell states: “New research shows that kids are naturals at learning new technology. … Chris Lucas, a fellow at the University of Edinburgh, says kids’ willingness to try new things comes from a fundamental fearlessness. Adults, Lucas says, are encumbered with years and years of experience that has taught them that failure is painful and potentially dangerous; kids, on the other hand, have a safety net in the form of their parents, and few preconceptions about the world.”

Lukas conducted an experiment. He and his team “put kids and adults in front of a strange machine, and gave them array of objects which they could place on the machine to try to activate it—make it light up and play music. The participants were instructed to find the logical combination of objects that would activate the machine. The researchers found that kids were much better than the adults at choosing the right objects. Lucas hypothesizes that adults’ rationality and expectations, two usually useful tools, were getting in their way. “Children have a greater drive to consider diverse ideas rather than to get things right,” he said. The adults in the experiment were unwilling to explore alternatives once they’d found a solution that almost worked, but kids were more likely to throw out a halfway solution in search of a complete one. The experiment helps us understand why kids can pick up new technologies so easily. Adults presented with a new and strange thing are likely to try to interact with it in a rational, measured way, based on their past experience. But this reliance on past experience can keep them from figuring out the most innovative technologies, which aren’t a natural evolution of what was standard before.”

Why is this? “Lucas … says that when he’s teaching (adult) students programming, “not being afraid to screw up is a major predictor of learning more quickly.”” And: “A study conducted by the Center for Research and Education on Technology Enhancement found that adults’ attitudes toward technology are an important factor in predicting how comfortable they are using it. Sara Czaja, a professor at the University of Miami and the director of the research center, said that adults who feel anxious or uncomfortable around technology, or who don’t believe they will be able to learn how to use new technology, are likely to avoid them. This anxiety can come from a lack of exposure to technology, a lack of instruction or support, or a previous bad experience, said Czaja. But in addition to the effect of attitude and intelligence, she found that age still matters: Independent of other factors, an older adult is more likely to have trouble with technology than a younger one.”