They do what on the Internet?

I recently spoke to a staff member at one of my schools who in all respects is a lovely person, but who shocked me thoroughly when we started talking about ’the Internet’. The topic somehow came to MySpace in particular, and in general the idea of putting personal stuff out there for all to see. Now this person has a child, and their opinion was that they would never let their child do anything online that might expose them to the dangers of the Internet. This sounds good and proper

  • but my shock was at what their idea of Internet danger extends to.

Do you believe that some people use the Internet for banking!?

they exclaimed.
As I was about to explain that actually the ’net is getting very good at keeping everything you put out there safe I was forced to cut the conversation short to reset yet another password.

Now this person isn’t so old you can forgive their scepticism - and even that’s not fair when you consider that my Grandma has been banking online for at least a couple of years now. More confusingly this person is fresh out of university - so they MUST be using the ’net at least occasionally.

Before we ended the conversation I tried to impress upon them that with a very young child about to grow up in an increasingly net-connected world, they have a chance (nay, a duty) to learn everything they can about this newfangled technology to better educate their children in its proper use. I’m not sure if I got through.

They grow up so fast

Since then, I’ve thought a lot more about our jobs as educators and technologists (and parents) to make this technology safer for our kids (and by ‘our’, I mean the ones we work with as well as the ones we own^1^{#1tag}). I’ve kinda been interested in this area since starting to work with Al Upton who put me on to a couple of educators who think about this stuff. Until I talked to this staff member though, I never really seriously considered how important it all is.

Our kids are using mobile phones earlier, blogging younger, playing video games before they can walk, and MSNing before they can speak, but instead of teaching them, we’re banning them in classrooms and homes and hoping that they’ll get over it instead^2^{#2tag}. We block out everything new that we see (iPods, websites, phones) and never really re-evaluate it. It makes sense to hold back a little, to evaluate how safe these things are - but too often they are pronounced ’too difficult to make safe’ and banned outright.

The ban-everything problem

The problem with the ban-everything-new approach is this: new toys, new ideas, new things cry out to be used and played with - every child who was dragged to church Christmas morning knows this. Every geek with a new computer/browser/new-mouse-button knows this. Everyone who’s bought a new mower or car knows that regardless of whether you need to or not, your new things call out to be used in some way. And if you cannot use them in the ways they were intended you find other ways to use them instead.

You get bored of your old software on your new computer - so you buy a computer game to make the most of it. You don’t need to drive anywhere fast, so you do burnouts up and down the block. You don’t need the new phone with the camera, and you can’t find anything constructive to do with it, so you take photos of your friends humiliating themselves instead, and then you post them to your ’till-now-unused MySpace page. Why do we ban myspace? Because kids can do hurtful damaging things with it. Why do they do hurtful damaging things with it? Because they haven’t been given an obviously positive thing to do with it, and their friends are doing it, and they want to be a part of it, and it’s in our nature to default to the easiest and laziest things. Our kids want desperately to use this technology. They have access in their own homes and at their friends homes. They sometimes just don’t see how to go beyond the simplest and most juvenile uses for it.

But kids can be taught. That’s why we have schools isn’t it? Because they’re still learning and open to guidance (mostly)… Why do we find it difficult to encourage them to use tools productively instead of destructively? These tools are there, the kids will use them. We must keep up.

In the Air

I’ll leave my rant with a link to a story of a family that I think is amazing. Matthew is a very intelligent boy with a blog. He’s nine years old, and his goal is to interview 100 ordinary people. From his mum:

Despite having an above average IQ, everyday learning is difficult to The Boy. Out of all his challenges, I view the output and sequencing problems as the biggest obstacle. What would it be like to have so much knowledge, but not be able to organize it and express it clearly? Or to read well above grade level, but be unable to retain anything you just read?

The Boy has huge difficulties … with the most frustrating being the reading…not able to retain information from what he has read. Most times it feels like trying to put out a wildfire with thimbles full of water….you keep dumping and dumping, but it has no effect.

I’ve read this kid’s writing and I’m impressed that he continues to post even with such difficulty. But what impresses me most is that his mother has encouraged him to use the ’net as a way to express himself. Unlike my staff member friend from earlier, this mum joins her kid at the computer and helps him understand what he’s doing from a more mature standpoint. She does her share of vetting, but not so Matt is left out in the dark, but guides and encourages her child to explore his world using the tools available.

Isn’t that our job as adults?

1. We don’t actually own children. ?{#1sup}
2. Kids don’t need to get over it. This very concerned adult thought that their younger relative needed to get over their computer games, and was put in their place by a 13 year old boy.?{#2sup}