I was interviewed for Social Media Week on the topic of Children and Social Media. While I do think about this topic a great deal (as is evidenced by how much I’ve written and spoken on the subject), I am turning my attention to how I, as an adult, communicate with my Facebook friends who are under 18 year of age (yes, an article is being written). It’s an interesting topic mainly because I am still figuring it all out for myself. If anyone has any insights from their own experiences, I’d love to hear them.
A blog post from last summer that was turned into an article in TidBITS last fall has now been quoted in an NPR article examining the subject of children and social media. When I told Jack he was going to be mentioned in a National Public Radio article his eyes widened and he said, “National?” and then did a little dance.
One point I did not make clearly in my comments to the author of the article and that I did not really make in my own writing is that the one thing I do not want to do is teach him to lie to get around the rules. He’ll learn that cynical lesson in his own time. As things stand now, he does not have a Facebook account nor does he need one. When he’s older he can have one. For now, there’s plenty of other things both online and outside he can experience.
[An updated version of this post is now online as an article in TidBITS. -AA 4-Oct-2010]
[This has also been picked up by NPR! Read about it here! -AA 11-Jul-2011]
When my son was in 3rd grade, he attended a Waldorf school where technology and media are severely restricted. We embraced that idea while also feeing a little uncomfortable about it. On the one hand, I agree that kids need to be kids and there should be no rush to have them grow up and be exposed to more adult things. I also came away from my time at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Technology in Education program with the firm belief that computers in education make sense at older ages than at younger ages. Kids need the hands-on, get your fingers dirty childhood. All the constructivist (and constructionist) theories and tools can’t hold a candle to actual real-world mucking about. On the other hand, that viewpoint has not held up as well over the years — not because of improvements to educational technology, but rather because of the growth and changes in social media itself.
My son wants a Facebook account. He wants the restrictions to chat removed on his Freerealms account. He’s starting to be bothered by the limits in interactions in Webkinz.com and he wants to video chat with his friends on Skype. Also, he wants to make things. He wants to write games to share with his friends on the Web, he wants to become a YouTube star (so far, I’m helping him do movie reviews) and he wants to write, film, edit, and score a movie (so I signed him up for a mini-camp at the local Apple Store to get him started).
I’m beginning to come around in my thinking. His generation will be far more connected than mine is, or the one in between us. Why should we hold off on introducing him to that world? It’s going to play such a significant role in his life, it seems to me that his education should begin sooner. If he is to be truly successful in the world when he comes of age, he should be armed to the teeth with knowledge and skills. Of course, the big issue is his age. He and his peers are too young. You read about the horror stories of too-young people getting online and not being able to deal with the bullying and pressures that exist out there. Alarmist pieces like Facebook pressure: The horrifying week I spent spying on my 11-year-old daughter help scare parents into keeping the lock down on things like this when, in fact, the author of that very article actually has the solution in her article: supervision.
When our children go out into the world at this age, they never do it alone. We accompany them. I go with my son when he needs to go to the store. I take him to his play dates. I take him to his scouting and karate events. Or he goes with another parent. They are never left alone without adult supervision. This is to keep them safe and to make sure that nothing bad happens. Kids at this age are not that good at seeing consequences to their actions and do many ill-considered things. So we are there to protect them or keep things from getting out of hand. It is our voice that tells them not to get too close to the campfire or to stay off the rocks so no one falls and gets hurt. It is we who tell them to look both ways when crossing the street, to eat their vegetables, to turn off the tv now and get a book, to go to bed now, to not treat their friend that way, and to call their grandmother. We are guiding them and teaching them how to work within our society. We tell them when to say please and thank you so they learn this. We pay attention to their social interactions to help prevent them from becoming bullies or complete introverts.
But we tell them that they cannot go online yet. We give them this prohibition to all things online because we are scared of the bullying and the predators out there. Even though predation is a vastly overblown worry and even bullying is far less of a problem than the media would have you believe. And we latch onto things like Facebook’s age limits. “Kids must be 13 to get a Facebook account!” So we hide behind that or we teach our kids that lying about their age is OK to get them in early. (Ironically, the age restriction is not there for their protection but rather the way these sites handle COPPA. See How COPPA Fails Parents, Educators, Youth for an explanation). But all of these things assume that we are going to hand over the computer and walk away.
Instead, we should be starting to walk our kids into this online world the way we walk them into the real world. Let them get online but supervise them. Allow them to start exploring and learning how the online world works but stay with them on this journey until you can let them go alone, the same way we are already doing this in the real world. If you see bullying in the real world, you call the parent of the offending child and hope that they will do something about it. If you see it online, you can do the same thing. And if the parent fails to act, then you can block that person (something you can’t actually do in the real world). If your own child is inappropriate or bullying, you are there to stop it and explain how social networks work (or should work). In short, you teach them, you socialize them just as you do in the real world.
Of course, this plan falls down as many of the parents in my generation have no clue about this stuff and wouldn’t know how to properly supervise their children online (though, of course, you can accomplish most of it by just sitting with your children as they explore online so you are there to correct or guide). I wish there were an online course for parents to teach them what they need to know to do their jobs correctly in the new media space. And I also wish our schools would take up the mantle and find a way to properly add these tools to their curricula so that children learn to use them smartly, and ethically.
Bringing it back to my own family, I am not saying that I am going to let my son lie and get a Facebook account. I do still believe that we must consider age appropriateness. He is just learning how to use the phone to call his friends (we still have to remind him to be polite to adults, tell them who he is when he calls, and things like that) and he really can’t type that well yet, and, frankly, he’s 10. There’s plenty of time. But my reasons for holding him back from at least the social networking side of things is not about fear but rather from a belief that he is not mature or socially ready yet. I think he will be long before he’s 13 but I’ll deal with that conundrum then. Meanwhile, he can create all the content he wants and start his own blog and more. I’ll be there to guide him just as I am out in the real world.
I am having social network fatigue. First, there are the long-form posting sites — my main blog, Posterous and Tumblr (though the latter may be argued as a short-form site too). Then there’s the quick snippet land of Facebook and Twitter. Then there’s the GPS-aware side of things like Foursquare, Loopt, MyTown, and Yelp! (I have since given up on Gowalla and Brightkite as not being particularly interesting to me).
The GPS group are getting a long form post from me soon enough as I have been evaluating them with an eye towards a blog post for some time now. At least that’s how I justify to my wife my continued use of them…
What I’m trying to figure out now is how I should talk to the world without having to worry about where I am writing. I am not a power blogger. I don’t really feel the need to blast 20 posts a day out there and I am not trying to set myself up as an expert in any particular field to make my site a destination for those in that field and resume fodder. I could just do things in my WordPress site and have my Posterous and Tumblr sites auto-carry the posts or at least links back to them and have links auto-posted to Twitter and Facebook. But I also like the ultra-simplicity offered by Tumblr and Posterous. It is just easier to pull a post together.
And then there’s the fact that I like posting pictures from my iPhone (not so much text — while I don’t hate the iPhone keyboard, I am just not interested in trying to type a lot on it) and I feel that it is much easier to go directly to Facebook or Tumblr than it is my WP site (yes, I have the app, I still find it a longer process than these other methods).
Maybe my problem is that I can’t commit to just one program and stick to that. I like so much of each of them that I want the freedom to use all of them whenever I feel like it.
I wonder what the rest of the world does. Where do you post and where do you ignore? How important is it to you to get your stuff out to as many sites as possible versus using just one and trusting that your audience (friends, family, whoever) can and will find it?