Children Online

[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 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.