Letting kids on the web

I’ve got kids – they’re 7 and 10 – and they’re at that age when they are just starting to spend a bit more time online. The last few months have seemed like a good time to look around and see what other parents are doing, and make some decisions about how best to approach this.

The first observation I have from doing this looking around is a depressing one: parents are mostly clueless. They either don’t have a strategy: “oh, I just let him/her do what they like – they’re much more tech-savvy than me anyway”, or they have a “oh my god, this shit is evil, I never let them go on the web” thing going on. There doesn’t seem to be much that is moderate, measured or thoughtful. This strikes me as a mistake.

My thoughts are these:

Cameron’s Firewall is a terrible, dangerous thing.
It’s utterly (and to anyone with half a brain in their heads) obviously futile to try and categorise the web. There’s porn, yes, but the whole “esoteric content” thing includes – as we know – sex educaton sites, stuff on suicide, drugs, etc. This represents censorship, pure and simple, and is enough of a reason on its own to rally againt it. But – more dangerously – as this excellent article points out, it leaves (mostly clueless) parents feeling like their kids are safe – when they just aren’t.

Kids ultimately need to be taught how to create their own, personal filters
The problem we’re trying to teach our kids about here is this: there is some horrific, horrible shit out there, some total loons talking total bollocks, some awful images and all manner of viruses, phishing sites and god knows what else. Hiding this away from them, pretending it doesn’t exist: this is prohibition – and if we’ve learnt anything about prohibition it’s that it makes things more desirable, not less. See also: drugs, alcohol, fags…

The thing we want our kids to come away with is self-awareness and empathy. At that inevitable moment when they do stumble across something horrible on the web (and lets be really clear here, this absolutely is inevitable – if they can’t get it at your house, they’re sure as hell going to have a dodgy mate who knows how to get around their parents’ crappy filtering system) we want them to have the mental capacity and maturity to say “I have seen this, but I have the knowledge and toolset to know to ignore it, to move on, to tell someone”.

Now, there is an age at which this self-filtering can’t take place, because there isn’t enough maturity or knowledge to do it. I’d say for instance that my boys are much too young right now to begin to understand this. So unfettered access to the web isn’t going to happen, not for a while. But – when they’re a bit older, I fully intend to say to them – look, you can use the web at home and should you want to, it’s all there. But I trust you to know what’s right, what isn’t and when to come and ask us for help.

Make the internet a sociable thing
As of right now, and for the forseeable future, my kids aren’t having personal internet devices, laptops, PCs. They have access to all of these – we have ipads, phones, laptops, PCs around the house – and on occasion they can, and do, ask to use them. But I simply don’t understand any need whatsoever – at the ages they are – for them to have ipods, tablets or phones of their own. The internet is a sociable thing, done in social spaces with other people – if they browse the web they don’t do it in their own room but downstairs where we are. This seems important to me, a way of making them and us feel safe. The moment will come when they get personal devices, but that time isn’t here yet, and I have to say I do find it kind of weird when kids this age have their own screens – it seems highly superfluous to me, and potentially dangerous.

Give them an email address
I have no issue whatsoever with my kids having their own email addresses – in fact having taught lots of CodeClub classes I can say that kids not having an email address badly gets in the way of stuff. Also – if they’ve got an email address they can set up stuff like Lego profiles, I can email them interesting things, and so on and so forth. What we’ve done though is to set up gmail accounts for them where all incoming email also gets cc’d to me – so I can keep an eye on anything dodgy coming in. They know this – it’s not a secret – and in time I’ve said I’ll turn it off, but it seems a sensible safeguard for now.

That’s it for now. It’s a changing strategy, but I think the fundamental points will remain the same whatever age they are – transparency, freedom, responsibility – but within a framework of safety.