Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The "Digital Latchkey Kid"

My response to Stephen Downes' post on his Half an Hour blog:

I don't think we're too far apart in general, but I think my specifics are being driven by the immediacy of being a parent looking for real time solutions.
We're also sloshing about between issues like information literacy (Googling) and age-appropriate socializing (MySpace).

In terms of information literacy, I would agree in general that "people who spend more time online are more able to deal with these issues", but again in the absence of applicable guidance, training and modeling, they may not necessarily deal with them in the most thoughtful or judicious way. I could teach myself how to drive a car, but that wouldn't mean I knew that I was supposed to always yield to pedestrians (not the best example but it will have to do!).
I agree that if we throw kids off of myspace we are punishing them for badly behaving adults (and this really is the core of the problem), which is why the cocktail party metaphor still holds for me. We don't invite kids to come with us to drink and spit and swear - we gather with other adults and find age-appropriate things for the kids to do in the meantime, with other kids, and depending on age, a sitter.

And we don't plop the kids in the middle of the party and hope that the sitter models good behavior - we take them to another room, another house, "off site" as it were.
We don't go into bars or night clubs with our kids and ask the adults already there to behave "age-appropriately" or try to moderate their behavior (whether we ourselves are well behaved or not), we simply don't take our kids there. So why should we treat this medium differently?
If we say "Hey, adults, tone it down in there!", they will (rightly) say "Piss off - this is a free and open venue!"

I disagree that children act badly as a result of cumulative exposure - i.e. because they are exposed to bad behavior in all aspects of life. We talk all the time about how if we just provide the right tools, the right ideals, the right models, that kids will come out allright. But I have heard and read many stories of parents who were completely aghast upon discovering the racy content of their "model" child's myspace profile, blog, etc.. I believe that many otherwise great kids will act badly when they see others behaving badly and the opportunity presents itself for them to try it. Again, I think this is what kids do - it is part of being a kid.

Another example used in The Tipping Point refers, if I recall correctly, to an experiment where a group of otherwise exemplary adults are placed in a prison-like situation. Surprisingly their behavior to one another degrades to stupendous levels fairly rapidly. Something about human nature and/or mob mentality is at work here.

Though they can disconnect at any time, it seems far too many do not. There are at least two issues here - one is simply the problem of spending so much time connected to a computer rather than seeking actual human companionship.
The other is that if confronted with disturbing content, many kids may simply "change channels" - go look somewhere else, but in some ways, if they continue collecting experiences like this they are only reinforcing the idea that bad behavior is acceptable - "_everyone_ is doing it!". While they do have the power to silence an adult (anyone, really) in this venue, many are like the long lines of drivers plodding past a wreck on the highway - you should look away, but you just can't. There is something viscerally human in this sort of curiosity, perhaps not unlike the Germans' Schadenfreude.

I'm sure it has been brought up before, but I'm concluding that we need to create an age appropriate place for kids, that has all of the appealing attributes of myspace, but in an environment where adults and other kids model and moderate. I can imagine all sorts of shortcomings of such a plan, the biggest being that if myspace continues to let anyone in (they don't _really_ verify age), then it becomes the forbidden fruit that the "cool kids" all partake of. So unless myspace and other similar venues play along it is likely a pipe dream.

The solution my wife and I have arrived at is that we do not let our 10 and 12 year old surf unattended. We have very tight content filters on our browsers. We haven't even talked about MySpace or social computing tools at this stage (and they are admittedly too young for that anyway). This may not surprise you, given all that I have written. What worries me is the number of parents - sane, rational, thoughtful, intelligent parents (friends!) - who do not provide similar levels of guidance and boundaries.

"Far better they interact in an environment that can be monitored and watched very easily by parents and police." But what if there's no one watching? A new "digital latchkey kid".
My kids will find titillating stuff at their unsupervised friends' houses, and I acknowledge there is little I can do except ask lots of questions and remain very involved in my kids' lives - and I am not complaining about that.

I have also started to take steps to educate the parents of our kids' most frequent playmates - see for example http://btc.montana.edu/distributed/boyd/parents_guide1/. Though it is crude at this stage, I'd be interested in any comments.

I agree unfortunately that "asking adults to act like adults may be more idealistic than practical". And this extends to our advertisers and media moguls who are more interested in ratings and revenue than helping parents be good parents.
In the meantime, by failing to address these very complicated issues we are effectively robbing our children of their childhoods, of that blissful innocence when all that mattered was kickball and clarinet lessons.

I am not in favor of censorship. But I do not believe the model of adults mingling with kids in an "anything goes" venue is sustainable, socially or economically.


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