media140: your kids online – what to do and what to actually worry about

The last of my presentations from media140 this year was entitled ‘Kids know more than you do, they just don’t know it yet’.

I’m not a parent, nor a youth specialist, but I’ve worked with kids in online communities a lot over the years, so have a few thoughts about what improves things, what can make it worse, and where to focus your concerns.

Here’s some highlights from that presentation.

Burst the bubble

The best piece of advice if you’re raising a child in the digital age? Turn the television off when the news comes on.

It’s not that just that our trusty tabloid reporters recklessly beat up on the web in grossly uninformed fashion (which they do). It’s that they miss the point. There’s no truck in nuance, and who has the time…

They’ll say Facebook causes ‘cyberbullying’, when it’s actually a lack of moderation, community management, and a lack of empathy that make a fertile environment for bullies.

They won’t mention that adults bully as much or more than young people. And they certainly wouldn’t describe people’s attempts to silence dissenting voices as bullying, when that’s usually precisely what it is (using power to threaten).

I’m no fan of Facebook (I think its monopoly on our digital lives needs challenging), but these types of accusations are as ridiculous as blaming the telephone for prank calls or heavy breathing harassment.

Some voices in the media (perhaps not surprisingly, those whose livelihoods are often challenged by the web), take every fringe incident or statistic they can find and paint it as the norm using the oldest sideshow tricks in the book. And the social media we pretend is above all that, takes the nonsense and remixes it into popular myth.

Provocative headlines have always sold papers. Bad news has always been used to manipulate behaviour. And when the way we understand the world is challenged, it confounds and worries even the most progressive and mature of us.

The underbelly of the attention economy (as danah boyd has called out), is a hyper-agile culture of fear.

You can hardly blame parents for feeling letting their kids online means an instant and relentless onslaught of adult sexual predators.

Of course sexual predators exist, but in small numbers, and they steal a disproportionate amount of our consciousness when we think about young people and their online lives.

A 2001 US Department of Justice study that surveyed 1500 American teens between 10 and 17 about their online experiences is often used as the basis for the assertion that one in five kids online receive unwanted sexual approaches online. These approaches included asking if you were a virgin, or if you’d kissed someone the night before. They included children soliciting other children, and did not lead to crimes or attacks.

This shallow statistic persists as a rule of thumb.

For every horrifying story somehow involving the internet, there are millions of positive stories that remain untold. And as always, an overwhelming majority of abuse or predation cases concern adults a child directly knows in their offline life, like a family member, family friend or other ‘trusted’ person (like a teacher or priest).

The motives and behaviour of corporate monopolies are far more threatening to our children’s well being and futures than bogeymen.

Our kids are getting mixed messages. Get online, get digitally literate, start building that online reputation… but don’t go anywhere that isn’t already familiar. Don’t go outside because someone might run off with you, but don’t go online and talk to people either. Share your passwords with us because you can trust us and we look after you. But don’t share them with anyone else (even people you might trust more than us, or be more likely to understand the context of any problems you’re having).

Kids hang out, chat, do schoolwork, shop, learn, make new friends, and play games online. They explore what they like, dream, imagine, get mean, act out, bitch and gossip, make mistakes, express themselves, struggle to fit in, and feel at home.

They are not anti-social, or badly behaved, just because they engage with the world around them and the tools of their generation. When I grew up I spent inordinate hours with my nose in a book. Was I a reading addict? My book didn’t talk back. Social networking is arguably a far more constructive activity, and one that supports complex skills and communicative literacies.

Events and campaigns, like Safer Internet Day, are often more for adults than young people, and they risk being protective theatre – like taking your shoes off at airport security.

Generalisations don’t help and the culture of fear feeds on them. Let the scientists and the researchers map the trends, and if you hear a news story about kids and the internet, look for the story behind the story. Ignore statements like ‘kids don’t care about privacy’, or ‘kids are losing their ability to make “real” relationships”.

Kids do these things differently than they way I did and you did, but they’re still doing them, and they still care.

How do they feel about you sharing all those pictures of them (often in embarrassing situations) on your Facebook page?

If they see you not buying into rhetoric and hysteria, it proves you’re taking them and their online activities seriously.

There’s enormous good that comes of a self that gets to extend online as well as off, and we risk this good if we let panic get the better of us.

Critical literacies

We’ve moved beyond media literacies.

This is about life literacies and they’re being forged in the commons where we spend a large portion of our time interacting with fellow humans – the web.

I like Howard Rheingold’s catalogue of these literacies: attention, participation, collaboration, crap detection and network smarts.

Denying our young people exposure to the web denies them the chance to develop and scale these literacies.

Socialisation and peer support

We are digitally grounding our kids if we deny them access to social networks. They can become socially excluded and may not get the support they need from peers.

Living on the web helps kids learn about social norms and the culture of certain groups and communities. They learn what being in a certain group means – inwardly and outwardly.

This is particularly important in an online context, because we don’t have the usual visual indicators of a group in front of us.

This can teach kids to look at actions and behaviour, rather than physical appearance, and critically, they will be able to spot when something is deviant or unusual, such as an impostor to the group. If they don’t build up a variety of online interactions and experiences, they won’t be able to tell when something feels weird or out of place.

If our kids don’t know what a healthy community and its members looks like, how can we expect them to know if someone is behaving suspiciously?

Team work and team building skills

Our kids develop important team skills online, especially in gaming. They work together with peers from all over the world to achieve shared goals and objectives. They learn to negotiate different opinions and perspectives, manage dissent and conflict, and reach compromises. They learn that decisions have consequences for themselves and others.

Spaces to play, experiment and fail

In the last 50 years we have drastically reduced the freedom of our children to get out and roam in the world. Fear mongering and moral panics have left parents feeling paralysed and reactive.

The internet has offered a welcome antidote to this trend, giving kids at least some ways to see and be seen, explore new places, meet new people, climb up digital trees, fall down and scrap their virtual knees.

The more we shut our our kids out of offline experiences that aren’t neat and predictable, the more we drive them into digital unknowns, for better and worse.

We need unstructured play and roaming when we’re growing up. It helps us survive and thrive.

Don’t let the internet go away

Kids often don’t tell their parents that they’re being mistreated online because they’re afraid they’ll get cut off from the web altogether, and with it, their social lives, ways of being and belonging.

Make it clear they can tell you anything and that this important part of their lives won’t be threatened.

Watch your language

Be careful with words that alienate, or set you apart from your kids more than they need to. ‘Cyber’ is my favourite of these (repeated too much by an aging media).

Terms like ‘cyberbullying’ and ‘cybersafety’ usually make you sound old fashioned and out of touch.

Young people don’t make the distinction between bullying and cyberbullying, and they’re right not to. Cyberbullying is a silly abstraction that suggests a problem that is contained, and a product of, the web. These prefaces create an unnatural and problematic divide between online and off.

The web is simply flesh and blood people, connecting. Bullying happens. There are ways to protect your safety, online and off, and often they’re the same thing.

We adults tend to still exoticise the web as something alien, and we reveal that in these kinds of oddly florid ways of talking about it.

Create (reasonable) conditions and parameters

Set clear boundaries about what types of sites your child can visit (this can be supported by filters), and when they’re allowed to type in information about themselves.

Decide the parameters for adding friends. People they’ve met in person? People you both know? Only school friends? Make sure they know what the agreed rule is.

Calibrate privacy settings together. Check back on them regularly, especially on platforms that have a habit of undoing your choices without consent, like Facebook.

Agree on where the web will be accessed at home. Before your child has a smartphone, it’s easy to quarantine computer use to the living room, or the principal shared space. Minimise opportunities for young children to access the web without responsible adults in easy reach.

Agree on times to have a break from screens. Too much of anything can do damage, and a break offers perspective, especially from things like arguments or gossip.

Talk about when it’s ok to enter competitions, as most of these involves entrants’ information to other parties.

Talk about when it’s ok to buy stuff, and how you manage those purchases. Push advertising that entices your children to buy is embedded throughout their digital lives.

Create guidelines that make sense for you and your family, be open about them and revise them regularly.

Teach etiquette

Just as you’d normally teach your child about what’s considered polite and respectful, teach them how this applies online.

Most lessons in manners are immediately transposable – do unto others, don’t say anything behind someone’s back that you wouldn’t say to their face. But for now at least, some things are a little different online.

Words can be misinterpreted without body language. And until our online interactions are fully holographic, we’re stuck using things like emoticons to help convey more complex emotions or ideas, like sarcasm or humour.

Some younger children might have trouble distinguishing between a character in a game and a real person behind an avatar. Give your child tools to make this distinction, and guide them onto platforms and communities that do a good job managing the difference.

Explain to your kids that taking things out of their original context can create problems. Things like forwarding on a message that wasn’t intended for that person can create misunderstanding and hurt feelings, and may even be a security risk – if someone passes your child’s email or a chat message that contains identifying information on to someone else.

Teach them not to do this to others and to let you know if it’s happening to them in a way they haven’t sanctioned and don’t feel they can control.

If they’re not sure what someone meant by a comment, tell them to ask that person on the phone, or in person, rather than starting an argument online in public.

Talk to them about posting pictures of other people that those people may not want posted publicly.

Explain that the web is a giant washing machine that churns up things and smushes them around into new shapes and forms. We can’t predict what those forms will be and don’t have a say in it.

A word, an image, a message could have a life of its own before we know it.

Be very sure that whatever you’re adding to the mix is ready for that washing machine.

When you talk about bullying, make sure you also cover what to do if they see someone they think is being bullied. We don’t usually talk enough about this enough. What would they do if they saw it at school? How can that work online? How do you want them to speak up and act?

Finally, remember that manners and ettiquette are a moving target. They change over time and they’re changing now. A social norm for your kids might seem bizarre, even offensive to you.

Mask identifying information

We worry a lot about privacy and how much information our kids give out, but we sometimes let them sign up to websites with school email addresses (which usually tells a third party their full name and school). Schools themselves can sometimes be careless with this. Check out what they’re doing with your child’s information and if it’s publicly available.

Create a separate email address with your child that they can use for their online social lives and exploration.

This shouldn’t contain any identifiable information, including nicknames they might be known by.

Avoid usernames that might attract unsavoury types, or get them picked on (e.g. daddyslittlegirl, teacherspet).

You can approach this as play and the creation of character. A shared account that you can both access is a good idea, especially when your child is very young.

Look for any other details you can mask or dissociate, including their profile picture or avatar they use. Discourage a real picture and encourage something more creative.

When they are old enough to use a picture of their real selves, remind them that it shouldn’t reveal too much about them (and that teachers or future employers will likely see it, so they it should be them at their best).

Pseudonymity

Encourage your child to create and explore multiple personalities.  Growing up is when we indulge in formative identity play that lets us try on different personas, and figure out who we might become.

Pseudonyms give your child freedom to fail.

We look as though we’re heading into a future when our online reputation will impact, if not define, our fortunes.

Imagine if everything you did growing up was subject to public scrutiny for your entire adult life, judged by employers, partners, and our own children.

Give you kids the signal that it’s ok to experiment and fail, and protect them with malleable identities.

Buy their real name domain for them but let them be different expressions of themselves as long as possible – until they’re old enough to take control of their principal identity and online reputation.

The only people pushing real name identity are companies who directly profit from gathering a lifetime of cumulative data they can associate with your real name and identity. It is quite unnatural and a very recent notion. Don’t get caught up in it.

Protect your kids options in a way that can actually become creative play and expression (and by reserving real names for priveleged activity, you’re teaching them they have weight and consequence).

Utilise protective and educational technology

There is some good parental control software on the market that can be useful, particularly for younger children, and most computers have settings you can restrict for different users and log ins.

Sites like Google and Facebook do have filters and controls parents can apply.

Ask fellow parents, ask tech experts (especially the ones with kids).

Realistically, the older the child is, the more likely they’ll hack around any protections you have installed. And outside hackers can also break through protections if they’re inclined. Nothing is fullproof.

So make sure you’re familiar with the technology yourself and don’t rely on it alone.

Look for educational games and digital resources that aren’t patronising and written by people that clearly don’t use the web. Games like the brand new Watchers, from Atmosphere Industries, have been created collaboratively with kids, and offer fun, respectful and dynamic game play that teaches decision making skills about privacy, rather than rote learning of warnings (stranger danger!).

Talk about the power of images

We’re posting more images online than ever, thanks to apps that make it easy, playful and rewarding. The web is skewing seriously visual.

You don’t want to discourage your child, especially an older child, from being creative with images, and participating in experiences or communities where images are ways and means of engaging. But it’s good to remind them to take care with the details they reveal in those images. They might not be broadcasting their location, but they might be showing all they need to.

Most of the images we share are discoverable and let a motivated party learn a lot about us.

Discuss protocols for identifying people in images by means such as tagging. Make sure they know how to untag themselves and teach them not to tag others without their consent.

This applies to you too. Be very mindful of what images and information you’re sharing about your child online. Can they undo what you’ve done if they want to?

Broadcast the emotion, not the logistics

We’re all hardwired to share, especially when we’re young and at our most emotionally raw.

Explain to your kids that everything they post online is searchable and discoverable by anyone, for a really long time.

Tell them to avoid too many real world details about places, dates, times, appearances, and focus on the feelings that make them want to share.

Something made them mad, or made them laugh, or they felt they needed to get out and escape. Explain they can share details in more private communications, like an email, a phone call, an offline diary, or in person with their friends.

It’s important to avoid details in real time, like where they are right at the moment, until they’re old enough to deal with any unintended consequences.

Remind them not to share about others without their permission. Discussing your personal preferences about these permissions may still feel a little awkward, but it’s becoming socially normative. Help them develop the habit early.

We choose our own boundaries, and so do our kids. But digital permanance and searchability mean we need to give more thought to what we’re publishing, as there’s no taking it back.

Ask your child to teach you something about the web regularly

They may not always want to, but ask, and mean it. Even if you’re a highly literate web user as a parent, there’ll be nooks and crannies you’ve no idea about.

Your kids might introduce you to a new game that everyone’s playing, a new virtual world that’s piqued their interest, or just a new meme that made them laugh. Make this approach in the way that’s right for you and your child.

Kids understand and respect curiosity. Signal that you are genuinely curious about learning something new from them.

Treat online and offline as connected

As scholars have demonstrated, the kids who are vulnerable offline are often the most vulnerable online.

We are all whole people and the web is just the sum of us, nothing more, nothing less.

Kids who feel insecure about their appearance might feel powerful and popular online where there physical body isn’t seen. I have seen this a lot in communities – kids who are bullied at school or feel helpless at home find ways to feel powerful and in control online. I’ve also seen young people finally feel they can relax into the true selves, because no one is judging their appearance, or boxing them into a stereotype.

Remind kids that people they’re interacting with online exist offline. If they’re friends and they’re having a problem online, suggest they pick up the phone to call.

Warning signs offline can point to problems online, and vice versa.

Look at the whole of your children and don’t view their online activity as unrelated to the rest of their identity and self.

Reach out to community managers

Community managers are custodians and administrators of online communities.

We’re the people hired to manage forums, chat rooms, virtual worlds, smaller groups within major social networks – and we have a professional duty of care.

A lot of our work is focused on getting people engaged, helping them meet their needs, but the backbone of our work is creating and supporting safe communities that encourage people to be the best of themselves rather than the worst.

We help keep things legal and safe,  and we’re looking out anyone vulnerable, including young people.

If your child is a member of a virtual world or online community, find out who the community manager is and get to know them. Let them know if there’s anything you want to be informed about. Many community managers make a policy of proactively reaching out to parents.

Look beyond the Book

There are countless online communities, virtual worlds and social spaces online for your kids to inhabit.

The user population of Facebook means that it gets most of our attention and it’s become the benchmark for social networking.

But  we don’t do ourselves favours by focusing on it as the sum total of our digital lives. There was a digital commons before it and there’ll be social networking after it.

As Facebook has become the primary online home for parents, even grandparents, unsurprisingly it has lost it’s appeal to younger people.

They engage all over the world in many different spaces and context, including gaming communities and popular online worlds like Club Penguin, Habbo and Moshi Monsters.

Sub-cultures have always thrived online and as a prevailing social mono-culture spreads, alternative spaces find even more energy to thrive.

Don’t stare in one place, and don’t put all your online safety eggs in one basket.

It’s good to encourage your kids to use different websites, games and communities (they’re likely to do this naturally, but encourage moderation if you see them spending all their time in only one place). There are fan communities, causal communities, special interest communities. There’s no end of platforms and places to interact, learn something, have some fun, be creative or make a difference.

If they’re treating a certain website as a virtual diary, they’re pouring their whole life into it. Think of the devastation if that site suddenly went offline (we’ve probably had similar mini-meltdowns as adults, if we lose our phone with all our contacts, or a social networking account that contained all our photos).

Imagine how high the stakes are if you had spent your youth painstakingly sharing and archiving stuff that mattered in one spot, then it disappeared (because the website went out of business, or decided to charge you access, or was bought by another party).

Encourage your kids to spread their digital lives around, and remind them that nothing lasts forever, even if it’s all they’ve ever known.

Kids are better than us at being in the moment and filtering the multitude of signals around them. But they may not know yet how to make sense of it all, or have enough life experience to understand how it can all play out. Constant supervision or snooping is impractical for busy parents, and can teach the wrong lessons.

This isn’t about restriction. It’s about delaying and deferring impacts until your children are grown up enough to make their own choices about identity, reputation and privacy.

Combine their enthusiasm and curiosity with your experience and perspective, and focus on supporting responsible play and discovery.

Lead by example. Share and engage recklessly online and your kids may well emulate you.

Be a scaffold, not a cage.

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