From working with children and the internet for the past 15 years, I have learnt that it can be as harmful as we want it to be. If a child is alone with the internet, and no one else is around, the web can be a deadly, subversive, filthy and perverse place. The internet is our collective consciousness and human consciousness is not always pretty.
When children access the internet on large, publicly visible screens in safe and public surroundings, the net can be their most beneficial friend. Groups of children can learn almost anything by themselves, using the internet. I have evidence of this from all over the world.
There is a perception that the internet is "full of rubbish" and that children will learn incorrect things from it. I have seen no evidence of this. When children work in groups around a computer and research a subject or topic, they invariably find the right answers. This is because they interact with each other and quickly correct erroneous notions.
The internet itself is self-correcting and there is, actually, very little "rubbish" on it that is not marked as rubbish by millions of users. Of course there are issues that have no clear answers at all – such as in religion or politics. Children should be sensitised to avoid these subjects. They will benefit by doing so.
Children who access the internet from such safe, self-organised learning environments gain immensely over ones who don't. They learn to read sooner and better, they gain in self-confidence and they retain what they have researched for much longer than that gained through traditional rote learning.
The internet enables children to talk to people anywhere in the world. If such interaction is in safe, public spaces with large screens and clear audio, the effects can be dramatic. Retired teachers, grandmothers, storytellers, clowns and magicians become available to children everywhere. Since 2009, a "granny cloud" that I helped build has been interacting with children in remote areas with great mutual advantage.
There is a myth that computers make children more isolated and antisocial. Computers don't do anything of the sort. We, the adults, do, by giving children access to the internet alone in their rooms with tiny devices. We ask for trouble and we get it. So, put your computer in the living room, get a big, high-definition monitor that everyone can look at, tell children they can do what they like on it.
Don't put up firewalls; a child confronted with a firewall will desperately want to know what is behind it. Don't buy little tablet phones for children; buy big tablets with a Bluetooth phone. Goodbye privacy – goodbye danger.
But, then, what about all the strange and horrible things we adults do on the internet? The internet is not a monster we have created. It is us. Our collective consciousness and, unfortunately, our collective subconscious. We like our privacy. We don't like others to look at our screens when we do our emailing. We don't "do" Facebook in public. It is our secretiveness that makes the internet a dangerous place.
Here we – in our billions – look at, contribute to, create and lay bare a collective statement of the subconscious of Homo sapiens. Since the time we evolved, our brains have protected our primitiveness by hiding it away in our subconscious. We have chosen to make this public. And then, we worry about our children.
Animals don't get turned on by pornography about their own species because they are not particularly wired for privacy. Did we make a wrong choice somewhere?
We have wired ourselves for privacy, and all our technology is designed around that. We say things to each other that we don't want others to hear. Whose problem is that, the listener's or the speaker's? If someone listens (or taps your phone), he is a criminal. You are not, even if you were ordering a mass execution.
We could change this, with a simple technological design decision. If any communication or computing device were to be built such that any activity on it is visible on all other devices, we would have to build a world without secrets. The subconscious would be delegated to where it belongs.
If most of the natural world can do without secrets, so can we.
Sugata Mitra is professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, and the winner of the $1m TED Prize 2013. He devised the Hole in the Wall experiment, where a computer was embedded in a wall in a slum in Delhi for children to use freely. He aimed to prove young people could be taught computers easily without formal training.
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