Saturday, October 15, 2005

Kids and the Internet (or Thoughts on Yahoo)

Earlier this week, Yahoo buckled under pressure from everyone's favorite attorney general and banned anyone under 18 from their chat rooms, probably wiping away 90 percent of their users. My initial thought is that it was a gross overreaction. What's next, banning anyone under 18 in the school cafeteria or playground? There's a lot of talk about sex there, too, and the participants are mostly underage. I still feel that way, but when I try to think it through, the reasons are complicated.

I have five children, ranging in age from eight to 16. I can't say that I'm the most attentive parent, or even just a present one a lot of the time, but I do have a few guidelines that may work out in the end (we'll see when they all turn 30). First, I can't protect my children from the world. The world is made up of all sorts of people, from saints to sinners, with a few psychos thrown in. Second, I want my children to be able to function independently in the real world -- the way it is, not the way I wish it was. Finally, I subscribe to the nine-tenths rule, with variations: Nine out of 10 people in the world are wonderful, not just harmless (that's 99 out of 100), but truly wonderful. One of the most useful skills you can develop is openness to the nine and the ability to recognize and steer clear of the 10th.

Those guidelines have led me to raise my children in one of the largest cities in the world, albeit in the outskirts (I can't afford to house seven people in central London). I want them to experience the most diverse environment possible, and interact daily with people of all kinds. It also leads to me to encourage my children to participate in the even larger city of the Internet, for the same reason. My two older kids already have blogs (here and here ) and they all are fairly savvy users of the Web, multi-user online games and instant messaging (i.e., chat). As far as I know, they don't use Yahoo's chat rooms, though.

But I understand that the Internet has its unique dangers. Anonymity seems to bring out any asocial tendencies in a larger percentage of the population. Some people turn into blithering idiots when they hide behind a nickname in a chat room and are talking with people they know they are unlikely to ever meet in person. But you'll meet some of those same sorts of sub-folks at a car boot sale (U.S. translation: a mass, organized yard sale) or city park. Learning how to handle even these sorts of people (mostly by ignoring them or banning them, depending on the software) is a useful skill, and it'll only get more useful as they go through life, and as the real and online worlds blur.

Kids aren't automatically equipped to handle life, let alone the Internet. They need help, but not necessarily sheltering. Talking to your children -- I don't do this enough -- solves 90 percent of that problem. The rest of it Theresa and I handle the following way:

  • We tell our children not to give out any personal information on the Internet except to people they know very well. That means no addresses, telephone numbers, email address, skype names, etc.
  • We tell them that if anyone ever makes them feel uncomfortable or says something to them that they don't understand, tell us, immediately.
  • We keep the family computer in the living room, in plain sight. The second computer is in our bedroom. We ask them what they're up to occasionally or ask them to show us the games their playing and explain them to us. (A side thought: I'm not a believer in the theory that violent games make for violent people. Theresa may differ on this. As long as it's not gory or extreme, it's probably harmless.)
  • Suggest interesting sites, software or technology that may interest them, steering them toward safe, fun and interesting things to do on the Internet. This isn't easy, since "interesting" to me is often about as exciting as math homework ("Hey, kids, want to do some programming in Linux?"). But there are some very cool hacking (in the good sense of that term) sites on the Internet that do seem to attract them. I especially like the ones that prompt the kids to walk away from the computer and into the tool shed or outside.

Anyone else have tips? I'd love to hear them. Anyone disagree?

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