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Disturbing thoughts on social software for children

February 25th, 2004 · No Comments

The other night I had a hard time going to sleep. Much on my mind. Too many vivid images.

One disturbing thought came from Tania’s blog. That night she had posted about a television movie She’s Too Young where 14 year olds gave each other syphilis and chatted on-line away from their parents.

I’ve written a couple different ideas about children and social software: a post about Orkut for kids and another one about Abigail’s desire to blog . Both of these were written a bit tongue-in-cheek; I was playing with the idea. As a family who homeschools and lives on an island, we are interested in connecting with others. I feel that social software, email and blogging, have helped me find friends and feel more connected, and I wonder how these tools could help my children do the same.

I had not however spent a lot of time considering how dangerous it could be to have my children on-line. Enoch sent me a couple links that discussed how children could use social software. I was glad and grateful to read what these bloggers thought.

One link he sent me was to Foe Romeo who gave a talk at Etech on Social Software for Children . Reading her presentation challenged me. I appreciate how much work she is doing to consider children’s safety and also to encourage what kids can do on-line.

My motivation is to ensure that children continue to have the right to be present in public; to enjoy the benefits of social software and the good social capital it can generate, and to have a public voice. Digital spaces are particularly important given the social context in the UK, where a child playing freely outside is less common and teens don’t feel welcome in public space.

She presented some ideas that would allow children to communicate while still protecting themselves. I am grateful for her perspective. I don’t know if I agree with what she has written. I think, if I understood her presentation correctly, she is suggesting that children could participate on-line by sharing what they collect. Such disclosure would not divulge personal information that should be kept private. However I am not sure I want my child to indentify herself by her stuff. Is that what I want her to think, that she is what she collects? I am thankful for those who are working on this dilemma.

Enoch also linked me to Ross Mayfield who described how his 7-year-old daughter has a private blog, only the two of them see it. Perhaps that is what we should do, if Abigail ever gets a blog.

Reading about these discussions of safety for children with social software made me think about what I believe is dangerous. I wondered if I have been being naive. Being a Bad Mom to suggest social software for children, unaware of dangers. I do exercise some caution when I share about my children, posting within the limits I have imposed on myself as a mother, concerned for their safety, but perhaps I should be more careful.

I realized though that my social sofware interactions so far have felt safe. Although our blogs are not Siamese-twins, I do feel in a sense as if I am blogging with Ted together. We write about the same topics sometimes. He is part of a community and has met many people. We share some readers. If I have a question about a commenter or another blogger, I ask Ted to see if he knows this person. This is beginning to change, but until recently many of the people who I knew were interacting with me through blogging were people we knew somehow in some way, one, two or three degrees removed. Someone somewhere we knew had met them. I feel safe blogging with Ted. If I were blogging by myself, as a young single gal, it would be a different experience, a different blog too, probably anonymous.

At this stage of life, our girls are young and they do everything with us. I have a hard time imagining them going on-line without us around. We don’t let them use the computer except to type an occasional email to Daddy or Mommy. We don’t let them even stand near my desk where my computer is, now that they are starting to read (never know what will show up in those RSS feeds!). If they were to go on-line I have a hard time imagining letting them go independently. When discussing some kind of Orkut or blog for kids, I assumed I would play a large part and be involved in every moment.

I also realized that my childhood has given me a different definition of danger. It’s easy to think that there are strangers Out There who are harmful to families. That is true. But my childhood was not safe. There were people in my life, in my family, who hurt me. I discovered that dangerous people are not only strangers lurking Out There but also sometimes the people sitting in your living room sipping tea. Going on the Internet, going alone to strange places at night, or even going on a walk outside invite danger. But sometimes dangerous people are the ones who came in through your front door, the ones you invited and welcomed to your home.

After experiencing this pain, I felt I had two opposite options. One was not to trust anyone. Be afraid. Retreat and hide. I lived by this principle for a while.

But now I’m living by the other one: trust people but be cautious and careful. This is what I want to teach my daughters too, not only on the Internet but in all interactions. I take a step or two into a relationship, watching and being wise. I don’t give everything away but I don’t hide it all either. I wait a while before I open the front door.

Tags: geek